Dr. Sam Tsemberis addresses attendees at the Humboldt Housing First Summit in the Adorni Center.

Humboldt County’s homelessness rate is five times the national average. Based on the most recent count our rate of chronic homelessness is a whopping 11 times the national average. In fact, Humboldt County’s per capita rate of chronic homelessness is higher than every major city in the country.

These were a few of the sobering statistics revealed by Humboldt County Administrative Analyst Robert Ward at the outset of the Humboldt Housing First Summit, an all-day seminar held Thursday at Eureka’s Adorni Center.

“There’s only one cure for homelessness, and that’s a home,” Ward told the assembled crowd.

Well over a hundred community leaders — from nonprofit workers to county employees, elected officials and more — showed up learn about best practices and strategies from a man who has led a sea change in efforts to solve homelessness.

That’s Dr. Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist credited with creating the strategy called Housing First, which aims to get homeless people into permanent housing as a first step rather than the end goal of a long process that can involve substance abuse treatment, life skills classes and extensive case management.

Last year the Washington Post profiled Tsemberis in a story headlined, “Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness.” The Housing First approach, which supporters say is supported by a large and growing body of research, was adopted by both the county and the City of Eureka earlier this year. This approach was recommended by Sacramento consulting firm Focus Strategies, which worked with both government agencies. 

Tsemberis began by noting the contrast between this region’s natural beauty and its acute homelessness problems. After spending the past couple days in the area and getting familiar with the work being done here, Tsemberis said, “The county and city are on the cusp of implementing some really positive changes that I think will help a lot.”

He went on to address the root causes of homelessness and the ways in which public attitudes have influenced policy over the past several decades. The administration of President Ronald Reagan, he said, is correctly credited with bringing homelessness to the country on a large scale. “The United States, in 1982 or ‘82, stopped funding subsidized housing,” Tsemberis said.

Since then, he continued, many assumptions have gained traction in American society, including the belief that homelessness arises not from structural influences such as income inequality, tax policy and housing affordability but rather from individual characteristics such as addiction, mental illness, poor life choices and simple laziness.

So it’s no coincidence, Tsemberis argued, that policies have focused first and foremost on individual behavior. “Because we have intervened on the side of [homelessness] being the individual’s fault … we built a housing-readiness industry,” he said.

And it hasn’t been very successful. The Housing First model, in contrast, looks to give people a secure foundation and some self-determination, the ability to choose their own goals, Tsemberis said. That starts with lining up permanent housing, often through a network of landlord incentives including indemnities and subsidies. Case management and support services are then offered in the home, either directly or through tele-health technology.

Tsemberis referenced a five-year Canadian study involving a randomized, controlled trial with homeless people from several different regions of the country. The results showed that the Housing First approach was more than twice as successful in helping people find stable housing than the traditional approach.

Housing First is also cost-effective in the long run, Tsemberis said, due to reduced trips to emergency rooms, acute care facilities and the criminal justice system. “Housing people with supports doesn’t cost any more than having people homeless,” he said.

Like the Focus Strategies representative earlier this year, Tsemberis stressed the importance of getting the whole community united behind the Housing First approach.

During a Q-and-A after the presentation one woman asked for a show of hands to see how many actual homeless people had attended the summit. Two hands came up. She and others stressed the importance of empowering homeless people to set their own goals and find solutions.

Nezzie Wade of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA), questioned the long-term affordability of housing subsidies and championed the concept of a tiny house village. AHHA’s recent proposals, including sanctuary camps and other semi-permanent housing options, have been at odds with the latest efforts from the county and Eureka.

In the afternoon the summit divided into breakout sessions addressing service providers, landlord engagement, health care and local businesses. The summit was organized by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition.