Housing, leaders key to Utah success in reducing homelessness

Many communities have individuals and families living on the street, in cars, camps or emergency homeless shelters. Homelessness has become a growing problem. When seeking to solve homelessness, there are different approaches, but the bottom line is housing.

To add to the complexity of the issue, there are many who panhandle and claim to be homeless. But in Utah, our experience is most panhandlers are not homeless. So when addressing homelessness, it is important to clearly determine who is homeless and implement the most effective approach to engage these individuals and families to move them into housing.

Related: How Houston reduced homelessness

Looking at the big picture, on any given night for most communities, less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the community’s population is homeless. And within this overall homeless population, there is a smaller segment, 10 percent to 15 percent, of chronically homeless individuals. These are the ones most visible, often disruptive, who are high users of community services, and have high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. These individuals cost a community $20,000 to $45,000 per year per person in emergency services, such as hospital emergency room visits, emergency medical team interactions, police engagements and jail time. This chronically homeless segment is where many communities have recently focused their efforts.

A primary reason communities have focused on their chronic homeless population is because the federal government started a program in 2002-2003 inviting states and communities to develop a plan to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. In May 2003, the state of Utah accepted this invitation, and, by 2005, a statewide 10-year plan was approved to provide housing opportunities for our 1,900 chronically homeless citizens. By the end of 2015, the chronic homeless count was reduced by 91 percent.

This was achieved with a model called Housing First, or Permanent Supportive Housing. This new model required a paradigm shift by many of the state’s homeless service providers who had been working to get the homeless individuals clean, dry and sober before moving them into housing. We had learned that if they were expected to be clean, dry and sober, most would stay on the street.

With the Housing First plan, chronically homeless individuals are moved directly into housing from the street or emergency shelter. In this housing, they are allowed to continuing using alcohol and drugs similar to what any citizen can do in their home. This housing is permanent with on-site case managers supporting individuals’ stabilization and integration into the community to a level they are capable when they are willing and able.

Many have asked why Utah was able to accomplish this significant reduction in their chronic homelessness. There were three key ingredients.

The first was having several champions taking the lead in this effort, including the governor’s office, key city and county leaders, homeless service providers and the faith-based community.

As part of bringing these champions together around this effort, a committee was created that was chaired by the lieutenant governor. The membership was comprised of the governor’s cabinet appointees, along with businesses leaders, faith-based leaders and homeless service providers, who coordinated on homeless services and the state’s three Continuum of Care programs. These members could then make the needed changes within their departments, organizations and businesses — called “silos” — to achieve the agreed-upon approach. This committee approved the state’s 10-year chronic homeless plan and also annually approves funding from the state’s Homelessness Trust fund. This gave committee members significant influence for implementing the 10-year plan.

Second, there was extensive collaboration among state, county and city political leaders, homeless service providers, business, the faith-based community and the public around a common vision.

Third, there was, and is, a high degree of compassion for our homeless citizens. There is the feeling if someone in our community is in difficulty, it affects the whole community.

Housing is the answer to solving homelessness. But from our experience in Utah, there needs to be the local leaders, champions, who will create the political will to generate the needed housing and services.

Pendleton is the former director of the Homeless Task Force for the state of Utah.