Housing-first policies are at the forefront of this year’s presidential election

One of the most popular strategies to combat homelessness — first providing housing for people, then addressing other needs related to mental health, addictions, and employment — faces an existential threat in the upcoming presidential election.

How democratic AND Previous Republican administrations, including the Biden White House, have used a housing-first approach to help people get off the streets and into housing — but a Trump presidency could reverse the model that housing experts and public officials have advocated for more than two decades.

A “housing first” approach developed in the 1990s to address veteran homelessness, adopted by the federal government and many local governments, it aims to provide people with safe, stable living conditions that provide a foundation for addressing substance use or employment issues that are barriers to independent housing.

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

Point 22 of Trump’s Agenda 47 addresses homelessness: “Our once great cities have become uninhabitable, unsanitary nightmares, given over to the homeless, drug addicts, violent and dangerously ill,” he says in an accompanying video.

Trump adds that as president, he would provide “large parcels of inexpensive land” and create government-funded “tent cities” where the homeless could be housed while doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and addiction treatment specialists identify and treat their problems.

“For those who are temporarily down on their luck, we will help them quickly return to normal life,” Trump says in his Agenda47 plan. “For those with addictions, substance abuse, and common mental health issues, we will provide treatment. And for those who are seriously mentally ill and deeply disturbed, we will return them to psychiatric hospitals where they belong, with the goal of reintegrating them into society as soon as they are well enough to cope.”

“We want to take care of them, but they need to get off our streets,” he adds. Similarly, Trump’s homelessness plan would ban homeless people from sleeping on public land. “My strategy, working with the states, is to BAN urban camping wherever possible,” he says.

This follows a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case City of Grants Pass vs. Johnson a case that found that local authorities can impose civil and criminal penalties on people camping on public land (for example, sleeping under a blanket on a park bench) – even if the municipality is unable to provide shelter.

Cathryn Vassell, head of Atlanta’s homeless services agency Partners For Home, said the city’s support for housing-first policies has not waned following the court decision, and Atlanta will not start locking up homeless people just because they are homeless.

What about Project 2025?

The 2025 Project, the Heritage Foundation’s manifesto for a conservative president, also promotes an approach that prioritizes treatment for people receiving federally funded housing.

The Housing Project 2025 plan, authored by Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who served as head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Trump, is 14 pages long and aims to “end Housing First so the department can focus on mental health and substance abuse before moving toward permanent homelessness interventions.”

Instead, Project 2025 would require people to demonstrate they are drug-free and seeking employment before they can receive any federal housing benefits. Because HUD funds rental 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 created it, like Carson, held positions in his administration.

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

“HUD programs tend to perpetuate the idea of ​​bureaucratically provided housing as a basic necessity of life and, intentionally or not, fail to recognize that these public benefits have too often led to intergenerational poverty traps that implicitly penalize raising families in traditional, two-parent marriages, discourage work and income growth, and thereby limit social mobility,” Project 2025 states.

While conservatives have attacked housing-first policies, the Biden administration has promoted them. Biden’s fiscal 2025 budget would expand access to HUD rental vouchers to an additional 500,000 U.S. households — and without any sobriety or employment requirements. (These policies would need to be approved by Congress.)

Local housing experts speak out

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

“At this point, housing-first has been studied to death, and most of the findings are positive and support the model,” Oakley said. In many cases, she added, people with substance use disorders or mental illnesses are more likely to get sober or have their symptoms resolved when they are safely and stably housed.

“Many ultimately want to get into treatment,” Oakley continued. “The housing-first model can be 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 the stick of treatment commitments.

Project 2025, Oakley said Atlanta Civic Circledivides people seeking HUD assistance into two groups: those who “deserve public benefits” and those who don’t. “For example, if you don’t seek treatment, you don’t deserve it,” she said of conservative ideology.

If a Trump administration were to adopt the HUD “reset” outlined in Project 2025, it could jeopardize federal funding for local homelessness programs, according to Vassell of Partners For Home.

HUD funds Partners For Home in Atlanta and similar housing agencies in other cities through Continuum of Care programs, so federal officials decide which policies — for example, homeless interventions that prioritize housing or treatment — get funding.

But one of Project 2025’s top priorities is replacing career officials at federal agencies like HUD with political appointees, which heightens Vassell’s concerns about the politicization of housing-first policies if Trump is returned to office.

His administration “tried to politicize the housing-first policy, tried to point out that it wasn’t effective and debunked the evidence base that would suggest that it was effective,” she said. She added that under Trump, the White House tried unsuccessfully to implement a treatment-first policy “that really didn’t work in our system.”

One local real estate professional also raised concerns about a HUD “reset.” As an alternative residential mortgage lender, Nectar CEO Derrick Barker has worked with HUD for more than a decade in the industry. He thinks hitting the agency’s reset button to encourage new ways to expand the nation’s housing supply might not be the worst idea — but he’s not sure the next Trump administration would be the best one to pull it off.

“HUD was created in a different time than it is now — in a different market than it is now,” he said. “So a complete reset could be positive — it just depends on what kind of reset it is.”

“If it’s cutting the budget by 90% and saying, ‘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,’ then I could see that as a positive. But I don’t think Trump is trying to do that, and I don’t think the Heritage Foundation is trying to do that.”

Libby Hobbs and Claire Becknell assisted in preparing this report.