Seeking Shelter

Cities Are Trying to Build Permanent Solutions to Homelessness


The groundbreaking ceremony for the PATH Metro Villas project in Los Angeles, California, USA in April 2017


Homelessness in Los Angeles County, California, USA soared 23 percent between 2016 and 2017: Nearly 58,000 people were living on the streets as of January last year. That uptick turned the spotlight onto the county's housing strategies to permanently house those in need. As homelessness rises in many parts of the world, Los Angeles, Perth, Australia and many other cities are taking a “housing-first” approach. Governments are launching programs to permanently place individuals in homes instead of temporary shelters.

Given urgent needs, cities are looking to fast-track construction. In Dublin, Ireland, for instance, the government is planning a “rapid build” of more than 900 units across the city. Sixty-six will be modular apartments, with a budget of €15 million. In British Columbia, Canada, the government has earmarked CA$291 million in project funding to help build 2,000 modular apartments, with future plans for more permanent housing.


“We've helped individuals the sector believed could never be housed permanently.”

—Sam Knight, Ruah, Perth, Australia

The Los Angeles government is taking another approach to fast-tracking. As part of a US$1.2 billion program to provide 10,000 housing units to homeless people, city planners have unveiled a proposal to consolidate the planning process in a bid to accelerate construction from 300 units per year to 1,000. But the city doesn't want speed to sideline the requirements of its most important stakeholders: future residents.

“We focus on outreach and engagement with people who are currently homeless to connect them to services and housing, but also on establishing the right support to help them remain stable in those permanent housing solutions,” says Amy Anderson, Los Angeles. She's executive director of PATH Ventures, which works with the city to build housing for homeless and low-income individuals.

Her team's latest project is PATH Metro Villas, a multiphase, mixed-use project that includes construction of three new buildings containing 187 residence units. Because the project's central goal is to facilitate a permanent transition, the team decided to broaden project plans beyond standard housing features. The buildings include offices for an on-site case manager office and health services, as well as a teaching kitchen to host workshops on healthy cooking.

Nearly 58,000
people were living on the streets of Los Angeles, California, USA as of January 2017.

Construction on the project's first building started at the end of 2016, and the organization is on track to start moving residents in by mid-2018. A sense of urgency around reducing homelessness among the general public and the city's government helped shore up the project's finances; voters overwhelmingly passed a US$1.2 billion bond measure to build new housing in November 2016. “Financing is always a challenge because no single funding source is available. Instead we layer financing from multiple public and private sources, and there are not always adequate public resources available,” Ms. Anderson says.

Old Solutions, New Problems

New construction can give project teams the freedom to tailor facilities to the needs of the formerly homeless, but it's often an expensive approach. In Perth, Australia, the nonprofit Ruah Community Services runs a housing-first initiative called 50 Lives 50 Homes, which matches housing and support services to people experiencing homelessness. (More than 100,000 people are homeless on any given night in Australia, according to the most recent census.)

Finding available housing has been a major hurdle, however. “Supply of housing—with speedy entry—has been the biggest project challenge,” says Sam Knight, Ruah's manager of housing and tenancy, Perth. “The sector here, as in many places, is quite fragmented. Getting agencies on the same page on this project supports a more coordinated and ultimately more effective response to a relatively small client group.”

First, a House
The housing-first model is gaining popularity among project sponsors as an effective way to reduce homelessness. At its core is the idea of providing a permanent residence without preconditions. Once a person has a place to live, it becomes easier to treat other issues, such as drug use or mental illness. The model is particularly helpful for the chronically homeless: people who have been homeless for a year or more, or who have had four or more homeless episodes in the previous three years. And realized benefits go beyond the lives of those housed; studies have shown the housing-first approach reduces strains on emergency services, which translates into healthcare cost savings.


“Financing is always a challenge because no single funding source is available. Instead we layer financing from multiple public and private sources.”

—Amy Anderson, PATH Ventures, Los Angeles, California, USA

Since launching in 2015, 50 Lives 50 Homes has housed around 100 people in more than 70 different homes. “We've helped individuals the sector believed could never be housed permanently, and as a result we've seen significant improvements in primary health service use over emergency department presentations,” Mr. Knight says. Those are the type of benefits his team hopes will drive momentum for future permanent housing projects.

Quantifiable successes are especially necessary in areas with resistant local stakeholders.

To overcome such project obstacles, the best bet may be to work closely with local organizations to change regulations. Los Angeles' city council, for instance, is considering a new ordinance that would require community approval for any building greater than 120 units, rather than 49 units, which would help house significantly more people. —Kate Rockwood



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