Julian Somers.

Julian Somers.

Housing First does not help addicts: study

Alleviates policing needs and hospital visits.

“Housing First” is touted as the best strategy to solve the homeless crisis, but housing is not an important factor in helping street entrenched drug addicts get clean, according to recent research.

That was the finding of a Simon Fraser University study that followed almost 500 homeless people over two years.

Julian Somers is an SFU clinical psychologist doing research aimed at helping Vancouver solve its crisis of homelessness. His research team followed 497 Vancouver residents who were homeless and mentally ill. A control group received “treatment as usual,” while 297 people were given independent housing plus support services including mental health care.

When Somers compared the drug use habits of the two groups, the findings surprised him. Housing first “did not reduce daily substance use compared with treatment as usual after 12 or 24 months.”

Somers has been an advocate of the Housing First model for ending homelessness – providing the chronically homeless housing, and then other supports and services. He led the Vancouver at Home component of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s four-year, $110 million At Home study that ended in the spring of 2013. Housing First has been the approach to ending homelessness in the U.S., Europe and more recently in Canada.

Maple Ridge Coun. Bob Masse said it is counter intuitive to think that if you put 50 to 60 drug addicted people in housing, that they will quit using drugs.

“There never was much confidence that would be the answer to addictions,” he said, adding that locally there has been resistance to a “housing first” approach to homelessness.

Masse, a council liaison to the Social Planning Advisory Committee, said he is familiar with Somers’ work and most recent study, has heard him speak, and knows him as a respected researcher.

He noted there are other benefits to Housing First that make it a relevant strategy. Somers said his findings do nothing to contradict prior research that shows Housing Firsts benefits justify its costs. Those benefits include fewer visits to hospital emergency rooms, fewer interactions with law enforcement, and improvements in quality of life.

“It is a worthwhile outcome to reduce criminality and improve health care,” said Masse. “And there’s less disruption to society, and whatever area they are in.”

He said the findings should not change Maple Ridge’s immediate strategy in dealing with the homeless camp on Cliff Avenue. The province, through B.C. Housing, is offering operating funding for a local shelter for the homeless people there, if the city can find a building for it. From the shelter, more permanent housing situations will be found.

But there is obviously still work to do in addiction treatment of homeless people, said Masse.

“What motivates people to get clean? What motivates people to really deal with their addiction issue?”