When the federal government under President George W. Bush adopted “Housing First” to address the problem of the chronically homeless, it marked an unlikely juncture—a politically conservative administration pushing a progressive policy.

Carefully framed research showing that it’s best to house the long-term homeless rather than require them first to fulfill prerequisites, such as sustained sobriety, drove the policy’s official acceptance.

The curious case of Housing First is discussed in a paper co-authored by Victoria Stanhope of the Silver School of Social Work and Kerry Dunn of the University of England School of Social Work. Published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the article explores the critical relationship between evidence and policy. Evidence-based practice, they note, has become more prevalent in social welfare systems because of demands for accountability and prudent use of public funds. But the concept of evidence-based policy making is still relatively young in the U.S., while stirring debate both here and in Europe over how it should work. The paper describes the emergence of research-rooted policy making in the U.K., where “New Labour,” led by Tony Blair, made it a centerpiece of the party’s governing philosophy. The authors also focus on the role of research in the Bush administration’s adoption of the Housing First model.

In the case of researchers’ role in studying the effectiveness of the Housing First model, its most progressive aspects—including its grounding in the belief that all individuals, even drug users, have an inherent right to a home of their own—were skirted, and instead they presented the program’s dramatic successes using rigorous research methods. Researchers, many supported by federal funds, looked predominantly at housing stability rates and service use among the consumers of Housing First programs, finding that the chronically homeless stayed housed after a year of placement in 85 percent of the cases, and their use of social services dropped.

“The story of Housing First, therefore, is ostensibly a heartening one and to some extent a surprising one,” the authors write, “with the adoption of what is considered by many progressives to be a socially just policy by a conservative government that has expressed deep skepticism about social welfare. The role of research was central to this adoption, making it more akin to the evidence-based policy making in the United Kingdom versus the more chaotic relationship between research and policy that usually prevails in the United States.”

However, the case also shows the limitations of evidence-based policy in a democratic arena, the authors write.

Research supporting the program, and its champions, chose not to highlight the underlying progressive values of a right to housing—and so the policy debate did not include conversation on the moral implications of a capitalist society’s allowing people to live on the streets. The research-framed debate instead focused on the model’s cost-effectiveness.

“While not giving up the notion that the policy analysis brings a particular type of knowledge to the debate, [researchers’] contributions should be viewed as ‘mixed counsel,’ having both objective and subjective elements and, most importantly, being one perspective among many,” the paper concludes.

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