People who are homeless often suffer from myriad problems — joblessness, addictions and substance abuse, criminal records. But a new approach to solving these problems is rapidly gaining traction among social services providers.

Housing First is an assistance approach designed to help people meet basic needs, such as food and shelter, before attending to other issues, such as getting a job or working on substance abuse and mental health issues.

“It is the most effective approach to long-term homelessness,” said Heather Dillashaw, a Housing and Urban Development technical assistance coach from Fairfax, Va. She spoke to a group of about 40 social services providers at a daylong housing summit Thursday in Moscow.

“We put people in housing before the rest gets figured out,” Dillashaw said. “It is very hard to get well on the street.”

Affordable housing is an increasing problem in the U.S., especially in rural areas where resources are limited. There are several approaches to helping people get off the street, but “we can’t solve poverty,” Dillashaw said. “We’re not solving poverty; we’re housing people in poverty.”

That means, first of all, providing safe and stable shelter where people’s basic needs are met.

Housing First doesn’t require people who are homeless to address all their problems or graduate through a series of services before obtaining housing. Support services are offered, but participation isn’t required as it sometimes is in other programs.

This “no strings attached” approach doesn’t mean “anything goes,” Dillashaw said, noting “Safety should not be compromised.”

Although people with mental health problems and addictions are not generally dangerous, it is the responsibility of the managers of the buildings where homeless people are placed to set guidelines to ensure the safety of neighbors and other tenants.

Responding to a question about the relationship between mental health and addictions and homelessness, Dillashaw asked the audience how many of them knew friends or family members suffering from these conditions. Most raised their hands.

Then she asked how many of these people were homeless. Only two people raised their hands.

Mental health problems and addiction are not the reasons people are homeless, she said.

“It’s because of no help. We’re talking about poor folks who have gone off the edge,” she said. “It’s not because of mental health or addiction. It’s a lack of support systems and appropriate access to care that puts them into homelessness.

“This is a marathon,” she said of the effort to end homelessness. “It’s not a sprint.”

Kathy Hedberg may be contacted at or (208) 983-2326.

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