Explaining the “Housing First” Model

Christopher Oak Reinier and Roger Coryell


Like many communities up and down the West Coast, Sonoma County is experiencing very high rates of homelessness. In discussions of solutions for this issue, you’ll often hear the term “Housing First.”

Housing First programs have become increasingly popular as communities seek effective solutions to homelessness. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, along with state and federal agencies, have adopted a Housing First model of helping homeless residents.

Housing First is a relatively recent approach to human service programs and social policy for helping the homeless. Rather than moving homeless individuals through different “levels” of housing, Housing First moves the homeless individuals or households immediately into their own apartments.

There’s a large body of evidence that a homeless person must have housing first, and have access to a decent, safe, reliable place to live before being able to stabilize, improve health, reduce harmful behaviors, or increase income.

Compared to other programs aimed at reducing homelessness, Housing First programs have shown significant improvement in housing stability, less necessity for hospital services, less use of public emergency services, less criminal behavior and jail time, and improved overall quality of life for individuals and families who have been participants.

Housing First programs fall into two categories:

  1. Supportive Housing provides homeless individuals or families a place to live which is made affordable through long-term rental assistance, paired with intensive services promoting housing stability. Supportive Housing programs prioritize assistance to the most chronically homeless, the most vulnerable to early mortality, the individuals, and families making the highest use of crises services.
  2. Rapid Re-housing provides homeless individuals or families a place to live or keeps low-income tenants in existing housing when they are in danger of losing it. But it provides only temporary financial assistance along with moderate services designed to help tenants become self-sufficient over the long-term. Here’s more information about WCCS Rapid Re-housing programs.

These Housing First programs are based on evidence that housing is a necessary precursor to treatment, but Housing First does not mean “housing only.” Housing First programs include social services and care coordination as necessary elements of housing stability and quality of life.

Because of the supporting evidence, the California Legislature passed legislation in 2016 requiring all state housing programs to adopt the Housing First model. The legislation defined Housing First with these “core components”:

  • Applicants for assistance are to be selected regardless of their sobriety or use of substances, completion of treatment, or participation in services.
  • Applicants are not to be rejected on the basis of poor credit or financial history, poor or lack of rental history, criminal convictions unrelated to tenancy, or behaviors that indicate a lack of “housing readiness.”

These conditions are what especially distinguish Housing First programs. Evidence indicates that, despite the non-judgmental criteria for providing help, housing stability and quality of life improves significantly for participants in the program. Cost per individual for public services is also significantly diminished.

West County Community Services has been actively participating in Housing First Programs. Its Mill Street unit in Guerneville provides supportive housing for eight chronically homeless adults with disabilities. Since October 2017, WCCS has provided four living units to previously homeless individuals in Park Village, a mobile home location in Sebastopol.

Since October 2017, through its Rapid Re-housing program, WCCS has found housing for eleven previously homeless individuals and has kept twenty-six clients housed who were at risk of losing their homes. WCCS is also providing housing for four other individuals in two other living units.

Providing emergency shelter for as many as 165 homeless individuals this year, averaging 40 to 50 each night, the WCCS Emergency Shelter in Guerneville incorporates Housing First principles, with low-barriers to access and a focus on building a bridge to housing.

WCCS is not the only Sonoma County agency providing housing assistance through the Housing First programs. There are 969 Permanent Supportive Housing beds in Sonoma County. WCCS has 12 in the Lower Russian River area. COTS has more than 150 in Petaluma, Catholic Charities has more than 250 in Santa Rosa.

Check out this useful Homeless Resource Guide from Sonoma County. This guide provides a comprehensive list of free and low-cost services to help people struggling with homelessness. Resources include shelter, food, health care, financial assistance, housing, employment, disability services, pet care and more.