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Roberts Report: Housing, addiction and a society in decline

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Alexander Roberts

Last summer, our social services agency, Community Housing Innovations, finished an expensive, nearly yearlong battle to remove a federally subsidized Yonkers tenant who had installed her adult children in the apartment, apparently dealing drugs, and from where a gun was discharged through the floor into the apartment of the family living below.

In December in Mount Vernon, we spent many months trying to evict a tenant whose behavior provoked a petition by other tenants because of loud and threatening behavior, also apparently connected to illegal substance abuse. When there was a stabbing in that apartment, police responded but didn’t arrest anyone because the victim would not press charges and officers said they had no probable cause to enter the apartment. They did helpfully warn other tenants not to slip on the blood in the hallway.

The above incidents involved market tenants. However, the inability of society at large to enforce what used to be called “societal norms” is no more evident than in the new approach to programs for supportive housing for the homeless.

As a social services agency dealing with the homeless, we are seeing more deaths from drug overdoses. While not surprising given the thousands of vulnerable people we serve and the fact that drug overdoses now constitute the leading cause of death of Americans under 50, I believe a new, radical approach to what used to constitute illegal behavior contributes to the trend.

Up until recently, we could evict a tenant in supportive housing for taking controlled substances, possessing drug paraphernalia or testing positive for illegal substances. An addicted tenant might even end up in jail or forced treatment as an example to other participants. As a practical matter, we do not do so as our job is to engage these tenants and save their housing. Addiction was regarded as a personal failing, although it is now recognized universally by medical professionals as a behavioral disease and treated as such. Still, the threat of eviction provided a powerful incentive to seek treatment and
change behavior.

No longer.

Under Obama-era rules continued by the Trump administration, housing providers funded by HUD nationwide must adhere to “Housing First” principles, which include a radical approach to mentally ill and addicted tenants. Under Housing First, you may continue to shoot heroin in your apartment and refuse any services. As stated in the Housing First Checklist, promulgated by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, “Services are informed by a harm-reduction philosophy that recognizes that drug and alcohol use and addiction are a part of some tenants’ lives. Tenants are engaged in nonjudgmental communication regarding drug and alcohol use and are offered education regarding how to avoid risky behaviors and engage in safer practices.”

Developed for the 15 percent of homeless people living in the streets for one year or more — the so-called chronically homeless — Housing First principles now encompass all homeless programs in the nation. In an effort to get the chronically homeless off the streets voluntarily, HUD has prioritized them for placement. However, since Congress did not increase the HUD budget, the agency is forcing local nonprofit housing consortiums to reallocate funding, requiring them to withdraw subsidies from existing programs that have housed formerly homeless veterans, victims of domestic violence, addicts and the mentally ill for a decade or more.

Last year I spoke with one of our mentally ill tenants in supportive housing since 2008, whose HUD program was terminated. She is the mother of two children, with a heroin addiction and a full-time job, who has remained sober. I asked her whether she would have relapsed knowing that we could not evict her for using. “In a millisecond,” she answered.

Terminating stably housed vulnerable tenants who have followed the rules to make room for the street homeless who will not, offends any normal sense of justice and morality.

Such is the state of affairs in America today with the decline of religion and values.

Unfortunately, “nonjudgmental” societies don’t have a good track record of survival. History has shown time and again that once a society loses its moral order or foundation myth and becomes no more than a collection of individuals asserting their rights, it withers from within and dies. The elevation of anti-social and self-destructive behaviors to legitimate lifestyle choices will not improve society in the
long run.

Alexander Roberts is executive director of Community Housing Innovations Inc. in White Plains. He can be reached at aroberts@chigrants.org or 914-683-1010.

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