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Housing first strategy has little impact on substance abuse: Vancouver study

There is no evidence that a housing first strategy on its own is enough to address substance abuse among chronically homeless people with mental illness, a Simon Fraser University researcher has found.

As part of the Vancouver At Home project, SFU health science professor Julian Somers and his team tracked 500 people who were homeless and suffered from mental illness.

One group had access to only the health, social and housing services regularly available to them on the street, while the second group was placed in housing.

After two years, researchers found no improvement in daily substance abuse in the group that was housed (30 per cent entered the study using drugs daily, and the same percentage continued to after 24 months).

Somers said the study, the first to examine to impact of housing intervention on drug use, contradicts the accepted theory that stable housing alone can help someone address drug addiction.

“There is no evidence housing first improves substance abuse behaviour. People who are housed and supported use drugs just as much (as homeless who have access to usual services),” said Somers.

That’s not to discount the value of housing first.

Previously published Vancouver At Home studies have shown the strategy can dramatically improve lives.

“There are a number of obvious positives factors from housing first. People definitely have much higher housing stability and are less involved with the justice system,” Somers said. “Housing is, in all likelihood, necessary [to successfully treat drug addiction]. We know what housing first provides, now we’re able to ask what it doesn’t provide.”

The findings suggest supportive housing needs to be supplemented by giving people greater access to addictions treatment and employment opportunities, he said.

Somers also added that the health outcomes for participants in the study have also improved over time.

Since the last of the participants were last monitored in 2013, Somers says social services have had greater success targeting chronically homeless people with mental illnesses and that many of them are now clients of BC Housing.

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