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Luke Waddell's lonely crusade against Housing First policy

Ben Schachtman

At last month’s Wilmington City Council meeting, freshman Councilman Luke Waddell was the sole “no” vote against the city’s plan to use federal funding for permanent supportive housing. His opposition came from concerns about “Housing First” policies. But what are those, and why does he oppose them?

Last month, city staff proposed using about $2 million in federal funds to create 66 permanent supportive housing units for the chronically homeless.

The plan was popular with city council members, save for one: Luke Waddell.

I mean, Housing First sounds great,” he said at the initial March 7 hearing. “But it's antiquated, and I think the data shows in no uncertain terms, it doesn't work.”

Waddell said he’s ideologically opposed to Housing First policy – but what is it? And how does it relate to permanent supportive housing (PSH)?

Let’s start by defining some terms. Michele Bennett, the board chair for the region’s Continuum of Care (CoC), says PSH is aimed at chronically homeless individuals.

“It means that you will help someone who has been chronically homeless, you provide them with on-site support services, or case management,” she explains. “But you can have requirements like sobriety, and still be considered permanent supportive housing," she said.

That’s quite different from Housing First, a policy dictating that housing be provided with no strings attached. Many PSH developments in Wilmington are Housing First: they only charge rent based on a limited proportion of income (if that income is $0, there's no rent).

Waddell, on the other hand, supports conditions on housing: things like sobriety, employment, or mandatory mental health care. He holds up Eden Village as a quality example, although they haven’t begun housing anyone yet. Eden Village bans drugs from its campus, charges a flat $300 rent, and enforces participation in group activities and volunteering.

Bennett says that’s a contrast to the Housing First philosophy, which sets no requirements.

“Housing First is the true embodiment of that hierarchy of needs, which says, ‘to be able to accomplish anything beyond your very basic needs, you have to have food, you have to have water, you have to have shelter,'" she said.

Waddell conflates PSH and Housing First, but that’s not unreasonable. These days, Housing First is a policy incentivized by the federal government — namely the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — and most providers in the region are doing both Housing First and PSH simultaneously.

A good example of housing that’s both PSH and Housing First is Good Shepherd Center’s SECU Lakeside Reserve, which includes a full-time case manager who works with the 40 individuals housed on-site. While those supportive services are available, they’re not mandatory, because it could be considered a violation of their fair housing rights under HUD to mandate such participation.

Critique of Housing First

In an interview with WHQR, Waddell further explained his concerns, citing data and talking points from The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that claims Housing First is a failed policy. Waddell said San Francisco has invested heavily in PSH compared to cities like Miami. He essentially correlates PSH with more homelessness.

“The unsheltered homeless population in Miami fell 50% between 2005 and 2020,” he said. “San Francisco's unsheltered population rose by 95%.”

However, San Francisco is renowned for its NIMBY attitudes toward housing. According to federal estimates, Miami consistently approves more building permits for more units of housing than San Francisco, despite Miami being a smaller city.

Asked about these differences in development policy, Waddell said, “It's going to be a little bit of a difference in ideology, whether or not housing is the true issue.”

Essentially, Waddell argued homelessness is caused by mental illness and drug use — not a lack of access to housing. That’s why he claims Housing First has failed for years.

But Bennett said Housing First is actually a relatively recent initiative in the Cape Fear Region — it’s only become a priority in the last 5 years. And to her, it’s worth it: it’s life-saving and life-altering for beneficiaries, especially with the “supportive” aspect.

“They're able to assist with folks who want to return to education or employment,” she explained. “They don't have to have income. so Permanent Supportive Housing really can be that first step, that foundation just like it is in Maslov's hierarchy of needs.”

PSH is only aimed at a small, very difficult-to-serve segment of the homeless population dealing with mental illness and a cycle of trauma and self-medication. But there are other Housing First policies: helping someone who just lost a job pay their rent, without drug testing them first.

“It’s not an either-or,” Bennett said. “You don't invest in one or the other, you invest in both of them. Because again, homelessness runs the spectrum. It is a continuum.”

Many people who end up homeless self-resolve with a little bit of help- a bit of bridge funding to get their first and last month’s rent, or some emergency shelter or services before they can move in with family. Requiring mental health treatment, sobriety, or volunteer hours can be just another barrier to housing for those folks.

Other needed resources

Waddell told WHQR he would have preferred to see that money go to transitional housing or to an emergency shelter. But the CoC and other local stakeholders say PSH is the biggest need in the region.

This chart, which uses data from the CoC, shows a marked decline in homelessness since 2010. However, the unsheltered population has increased in that time.
Liz Carbone
This chart, which uses data from the CoC, shows a marked decline in homelessness since 2010. However, the unsheltered population has increased in that time.

It may be surprising to hear, but the Cape Fear Region is actually doing better on homelessness than most of the state. Our rate of homelessness is lower than the state average, and we’ve reduced the tri-county area’s overall homeless population by nearly half since 2010.

In that time, though, the chronically homeless population has increased; those are people who have been homeless for over a year, in some cases while dealing with a mental health or substance abuse issue.

This chart shows the region's chronically homeless population from 2010 to 2022. The drop in 2017 and 2018 coincides with Good Shepherd Center opening the SECU Lakeside Reserve, a permanent supportive housing complex with 40 apartments.
Liz Carbone
This chart shows the region's chronically homeless population from 2010 to 2022. The drop in 2017 and 2018 coincides with Good Shepherd Center opening the SECU Lakeside Reserve, a permanent supportive housing complex with 40 apartments.

Despite the need for more PSH, Bennett said she agrees with Waddell that there is also a need for more emergency shelters.

“We also need additional emergency shelters,” she said. “But my goodness, the city has had a memory loss if they think that they have always supported that, because they certainly have not. You know, there was a time when Good Shepherd was downtown, and they got run out of the downtown area.”

She’s referencing the fact that Good Shepherd Center used to be located in downtown Wilmington decades ago. Sources familiar with the CoC have told WHQR that the shelter was pressured to move because of business interests, and it’s now located on the city's south side at 811 Martin St.

Now, with the Salvation Army closing its location on 3rd and Brunswick, there are no shelters available within downtown Wilmington.

Asked where a shelter should be, Waddell pointed to the planned Salvation Army shelter off Martin Luther King Boulevard, and near Eden Village. As for the transitional housing he’d like to see, there aren’t many service providers prepared to use federal funding to make it happen.

But Waddell says he’s happy to go his own way, even if advocates and the rest of city council don’t agree.

“Let's pivot. And let's bring on some new ideas and go there. So I don't have the answer of exactly where or how, because right now, it doesn't matter,” he said. “Until the policymakers agree to take a secondary look at this, there's really no reason to have a fully formed plan.”

In the meantime, the CoC still has allies on the city council. All other council members voted in favor of the CoC-recommended plan, and that means more than $2 million going to PSH, which could create 66 units.

If it works out, that would cover two-thirds of the known chronically homeless population in the Cape Fear Region — although homelessness experts say the CoC likely undercounts the sum total of homeless. The need may be higher, about 150 units of housing to permanently help all the chronically homeless in the region.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.