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Ending Homelessness and Aiding Recovery: Choice is Key

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Ed Blackburn

Executive Director, Central City Concern

Ending Homelessness and Aiding Recovery: Choice is Key

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Homeless man on the concrete leaning against a wall. The wall has an outline of a house. The house silhouette frames the man.

Communities across the nation continually search for effective ways to end homelessness. At Central City Concern (CCC), a nonprofit organization in Portland, Ore., we understand that providing housing is not the only element in eliminating homelessness.

Recognizing the “homeless” as individuals and providing them with the dignity of choice is just as important as putting a roof over someone’s head. For that reason, we worked hard to give vulnerable individuals the option of either alcohol and drug-free recovery housing or Housing First. This means we can support our community in meeting diverse challenges and service needs, while helping an expanding group of people. Since the late 1970s, we have helped people with substance use disorders. And as we evolved, we expanded our services to include behavioral health care and embraced a Housing Choice philosophy that lets people choose the type of housing they want based on their needs and motivations for change—the right kind of housing at the right time.

Housing First provides people experiencing homelessness with permanent housing as quickly as possible with voluntary supportive services provided later, as needed. Recovery housing prohibits the use alcohol or drugs and uses peer support programming to promote whole health. AT CCC, we offer both transitional and permanent recovery housing.

In a recent assessment of people exiting transitional recovery housing, 64 percent either have earned income or have a stable source of financial support from benefits or government entitlements. Of those who completed treatment and moved on to permanent housing, 89 percent maintained their new housing for at least one year.

Based on three years of documented outcomes, both CCC staff and clients are passionate about the potential of recovery housing. We have developed a list of key components, hoping to share the model nationally. These include:

  • Entry to housing is self-initiated.
  • Eviction history does not exclude acceptance to housing.
  • Supportive services such as integrated health care and specialty addiction and mental health services are easily accessed either onsite or nearby.
  • Tenants have 24/7 independent access to housing.
  • Relapse prevention programs help people maintain housing.
  • Tenants have “right to return” following relapse or incidents.
  • Tenants are referred to supported employment and transitional employment opportunities such as structured volunteer or job trainee opportunities.
  • Tenants receive referral assistance to permanent housing.
  • Tenants benefit from peer mentorship.

Peer mentorship has shown enormous value. Peer mentors—from case managers and counselors to front desk staff members—are there every step of the way to guide and support people in their efforts to recover and rebuild their lives. Nearly half—46 percent—of our employees self-identify as being in recovery and one-quarter have graduated from CCC programs. These personal experience with substance use treatment, incarceration and successful reintegration are critical to helping others and showing them that success is possible.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took note of our recovery housing in a 2015 policy brief, urging other organizations to consider our model.

About Ed Blackburn

Ed Blackburn is executive director of Portland, Oregon’s Central City Concern (CCC), an organization committed to ending homelessness and helping people achieve self-sufficiency.

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