One of the nation’s most widely embraced strategies to combat homelessness — getting people housed first and then addressing other needs around mental health, addiction, and employment — faces an existential threat in the upcoming presidential election.

Like Democratic and Republican administrations before it, the Biden White House has employed this housing-first approach to help people get off the streets and stay housed — but a possible Trump presidency could roll back the model that housing experts and public officials have championed for more than two decades.

Created in the 1990s to address the high rate of homelessness among veterans, the housing-first approach adopted by the federal and many local governments aims to provide people with safe, stable living conditions as the foundation for then dealing with any substance use or employment issues that are barriers to staying housed independently.

But former President Donald Trump’s Agenda47 policy platform indicates that he would instead adopt a treatment-first policy for unhoused people receiving government housing subsidies and services. That approach is favored by many conservatives, including organizations backing the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 manifesto.

Point 22 of Trump’s Agenda47 addresses homelessness: “Our once-great cities have become unlivable, unsanitary nightmares, surrendered to the homeless, the drug-addicted, and the violent and dangerously deranged,” he says in the accompanying video.

Trump adds that as president he would open up “large parcels of inexpensive land,” and set up government-funded “tent cities” to corral unhoused people, while doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and drug rehab specialists identify and treat their problems.

“For those who are just temporarily down on their luck, we will work to help them quickly reintegrate into a normal life,” Trump says in his Agenda47 plan. “For those who have addictions, substance abuse, and common mental health problems, we will get them into treatment. And for those who are severely mentally ill and deeply disturbed, we will bring them back to mental institutions, where they belong, with the goal of reintegrating them back into society once they are well enough to manage.”

“We want to take care of them, but they have to be off our streets,” he adds. Relatedly, Trump’s plan for ameliorating homelessness would ban unhoused people from sleeping on public land. “Under my strategy, working with states, we will BAN urban camping wherever possible,” he says.

That follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson case that says local governments can impose civil and criminal penalties on people for camping on public land (for instance, sleeping with a blanket on a park bench) — even if the municipality can’t provide shelter for them.

Cathryn Vassell, the head of Atlanta’s homeless services agency, Partners For Home, said the city’s support for housing-first policies hasn’t wavered in the wake of the court’s decision and Atlanta won’t start incarcerating unhoused people simply for not having roofs over their heads.

What about Project 2025?

Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s manifesto for a conservative presidency, also promotes a treatment-first approach for people receiving federally funded housing.

Authored by Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who served as the head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under Trump’s presidency, Project 2025’s 14-page housing plan seeks to “end Housing First policies so that the department prioritizes mental health and substance abuse issues before jumping to permanent interventions in homelessness.”

Instead, Project 2025 plan would require people to demonstrate that they are drug-free and seeking employment before they can receive any federal housing benefits. Since HUD funds the rental housing vouchers distributed by local housing authorities like Atlanta Housing, this would have a huge impact.

Trump has distanced himself from Project 2025, but many of those who put it together, like Carson, held posts in his administration.

The conservative blueprint for a potential Trump presidency also calls for a complete “reset” of HUD, saying that the agency’s funding of housing for low-income people has caused “intergenerational poverty traps” and led to an overreliance on government programs and subsidies.

“HUD programs tend to perpetuate the notion of bureaucratically provided housing as a basic life need and, whether intentionally or not, fail to acknowledge that these public benefits too often have led to intergenerational poverty traps that have implicitly penalized family formation in traditional two-parent marriages, and have discouraged work and income growth, thereby limiting upward mobility,” Project 2025 says.

While conservatives have attacked housing-first strategies, the Biden administration has advanced them. Biden’s budget for the 2025 fiscal year calls for expanding access to HUD rent vouchers to an additional 500,000 U.S. households — and without any sobriety or employment requirements. (Those policies would have to be approved by Congress.)

Local housing experts weigh in

Deirdre Oakley, a Georgia State University sociology professor who studies housing, said dismantling housing-first policies “sounds horrible” for people who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness. For one, she said, treatment-first programs don’t work.

“Housing-first at this point has been studied to death, and the majority of the findings are positive and support the model,” Oakley said. In many cases, she added, people with substance use disorders or mental illness are more likely to get sober or see their symptoms subside when they’re safely, stably housed.

“Many end up wanting to get treatment eventually,” Oakley continued. “The housing-first model can take a lot of work. You need outreach workers, case managers, and good relationships with landlords.” But it works better than dangling the carrot of housing security with a stick of treatment obligations.

Project 2025, Oakley told Al ilmu, divides people seeking HUD assistance into two groups: those who are “deserving versus undeserving” of public benefits. “For example, if you don't seek treatment, you are undeserving,” she said of the conservative ideology.

If a Trump presidency adopted the HUD “reset” outlined in Project 2025, it could place federal funding at risk for local programs that combat homelessness, according to Vassell, of Partners For Home.

HUD funds Partners For Home in Atlanta and similar rehousing agencies in other cities through Continuum of Care programs, so it’s federal officials who determine which policies – for instance, housing-first or treatment-first homeless intervention efforts – get funded.

However, one top priority for Project 2025 is to replace career civil servants in federal agencies like HUD with political appointees. That exacerbates Vassell’s concerns about housing-first policies getting politicized if Trump returns to office.

His administration “tried to politicize housing-first [policy], tried to indicate that it is not effective, and refuted the evidence base that is out there to suggest its efficacy,” she said. Under Trump’s presidency, she added, the White House unsuccessfully attempted to introduce treatment-first policies “that really have not performed well in our system.”

One local real estate professional also raised concerns about a HUD “reset.” As an alternative mortgage lender for apartment properties, Nectar CEO Derrick Barker has worked with HUD in his decade-plus in the industry. He thinks pushing the agency’s reset button to encourage new ways of expanding the nation’s housing supply might not be the worst idea – but he’s not confident another Trump administration would be best to execute it.

“HUD was put together at a time that’s different from now – in a market that’s different from now,” he said. “So a complete reset could be positive – it just depends on what the reset is.”

“If it’s to cut the budget by 90% and say, ‘Good luck,’ that’s not a reset,” Barker continued. “If the reset is, ‘We’re going to take a multidisciplinary, comprehensive approach to increasing the supply of housing for the next generation,’ I could see that as positive. But I don’t think that’s what Trump is trying to do, and I don’t think that’s what the Heritage Foundation is trying to do.”

Libby Hobbs and Claire Becknell contributed reporting.

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