Tulsa World: One-size-fits-all Housing First approach lacking

The following editorial, by John 3:16 Mission CEO Steven Whitaker, was printed in the October 29 edition of the Tulsa World.

Something is broken, and Tulsa knows it.

Recently, the Tulsa World reported on the results of a poll from the Austin-based Cicero Institute showing that many Tulsans want a different approach to homelessness other than the housing-first model used as a guiding principle by the city government and the consortium of service providers. To be part of the A Way Home for Tulsa continuum of care, partners must agree to a housing-first philosophy in their documents.

None of us needs a poll to tell us homelessness in Tulsa is increasing. You can see it as you drive around our city. We see it every night in our shelter.

The local advocates for housing-first programs are good people with altruistic motives, but we at John 3:16 Mission remain convinced that its one-size-fits-all approach is creating more chronically homeless people, not fewer. In a perfect world, the idea of housing first would be easy to get behind: immediate housing for those who need it, with wraparound services (addiction counseling, mental health treatment, job training, etc.) willingly embraced by those ready for change.

But today’s reality is not like that. Under housing-first programs right now, Tulsans who want to get off the streets face an average wait of more than a year for housing. They remain homeless while they wait, coming into extended contact with the violence and illicit drugs that permeate life for those in encampments and on the streets.

More discouragingly, they may lose eligibility for housing if they go to a shelter or recovery program, because housing eligibility is based on vulnerability.

When they’re finally placed in housing, the promised wraparound services simply aren’t funded — not in Tulsa and not nationally. Even if they were funded, with the housing-first approach, these support services aren’t mandatory. Some might partake, but many would languish in the same conditions that created their homelessness in the first place.

Compassion without accountability does not produce lasting change, either in individuals or in our city.

Our approach to changing lives at the John 3:16 Mission isn’t quick or easy, but it works.

Our emergency downtown shelter is clean and dignifying. We have common-sense rules in place to keep guests safe. We connect guests with social services, and we show them what our 12-month residential recovery programs, for both men and women, could mean for their lives.

These recovery programs are available at no charge, and they empower participants to look to the future with confidence. Men and women receive a year’s worth of mandatory counseling, job training and life skills classes.

They’re mentored by a team of recovery coaches and addiction counselors with an end goal in mind: for program graduates to live a successful and sober life, with a home, a job and a continued connection to a community that spurs them on toward a productive life.

It’s no secret that ours is a faith-based program, and we believe this emphasis gives participants additional encouragement that there’s a better way to live — a way that points to true hope.

Common-sense programs like ours have been defunded and pushed aside in favor of housing-first models. Despite this, we are undeterred in our commitment to offer effective, life-changing solutions to those who want off the streets.

We believe in Tulsa, and we love our neighbors — all of them. We invite you to come check us out and see for yourself what this looks like.

The Rev. Steven M. Whitaker is the chief executive officer of the John 3:16 Mission.

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