Lloyd Pendleton is the most efficient man in Utah. By the hour, he ticks off small achievements in a pocket planner, marking progress toward long-term goals. His mind routinely calculates volumes and outputs; he thinks in returns on investments. When Pendleton speaks, you begin to suspect he’s just sifted through a file cabinet’s worth of data. But then, he tosses in one of his signature colorful aphorisms, and you realize, nope, that’s just Lloyd.
After retiring from high-ranking positions at Ford Motors and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pendleton began a second career in Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, a seemingly unglamorous government job in Salt Lake City. “I retired on a Friday and went to work with the state on Monday,” he says. As a pet project of sorts, Pendleton set an ambitious goal: To functionally eliminate chronic homelessness across Utah within 10 years. Nine years later, as Utah’s homelessness czar, he’s on track to reach that milestone by year’s end.
“He gets things done” is how his colleague Liz Buehler, Salt Lake City’s homelessness coordinator, describes her state counterpart.
Raised on a ranch at the far western edge of Utah, Pendleton’s early experience working the land gave him a dogged work ethic and a quiet-the-bells directness. He admits he once thought street people panhandled because they were lazy. “I used to tell the homeless to get a job, because that’s all I thought they needed,” he recalls.
But later, through the Mormon Church, he was tasked with restructuring struggling food pantries, emergency shelters and other charities across the country. After working directly with the homeless, including a year on-site at Utah’s largest shelter The Road Home (then known as the Travelers Aid Society), Pendleton had a “major paradigm shift.” Viewing the homeless as his brothers and sisters, he realized that when they suffered, so did the entire community. “We’re all connected,” he now says.
Pendleton’s years of bolstering charities earned him credibility from many nonprofit executive directors. When they knew he was considering retirement, several service providers and then-Gov. Jon Huntsman began lobbying the L.D.S. Church to “loan” Pendleton out to head up the state’s nascent homelessness task force. The church agreed, and Pendleton did the job part-time for two years before committing to being its full-time director in 2006. “We got Lloyd involved before he realized,” one executive director says.
Described by one Salt Lake City social worker as a “voracious reader and researcher,” Pendleton started by signing up for conferences on the latest strategies. While at one in Chicago in 2003, he learned about the 10-year plans to end homelessness taking shape around the country, and he heard the buzz about an innovative idea called “Housing First.” Two years later, after a conference in Las Vegas, Pendleton started chatting up a fellow passenger on the airport shuttle: Sam Tsemberis, considered the originator of the “Housing First” model.
Tsemberis explained how Pathways to Housing (the organization he founded in New York City in 1992) threw out drug tests and waiting lists — the old trappings of getting someone “housing ready.” Instead, the homeless were moved into apartments in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y., within two weeks. “You’re curing the housing problem first. You cure the person later,” Tsemberis explained. After its first five years, 88 percent of tenants had stayed in the program’s housing — double the rate for the city’s step-by-step rehab programs. “Recovery starts when you have something you care about, a place where you can go,” he added. Pendleton took an instant liking to Tsemberis and together, they convinced Utah lawmakers and foundations to take a chance on “Housing First.”
Just because it worked in New York City, however, didn’t mean the program would be a fit for Utah. During one tense early meeting, a contractor worried about his reputation almost backed out of building 100 units. As Pendleton listened, a thought came to him: why not test a small pilot program consisting of 25 of the toughest, most distressed people? The idea partially came from a truism he learned on the ranch while chopping kindling for their wood-burning stove: “Chop the big end of the log first.” In other words, if you can house the most chronically homeless, you can house anybody.
The task force gathered the best case managers, convinced landlords across the city to participate and handed over keys to 17 people. “I felt the sweat on my forehead, and I know others did too,” recalls Matt Minkevitch, the executive director of The Road Home, a Salt Lake City shelter. “You’d give each other a casual smile and say, ‘We’ll work through it, okay?’ But they couldn’t hear your stomach growling, hear you praying under your breath,… and just hoping, hoping that you don’t hurt people and damage all these important programs.”
The first night, Pendleton recounts, one man placed all his belongings on the bed and curled up on the floor to sleep. The following few nights, he dozed outside, near a dumpster. Finally, after several days, he moved in and slept on the bed. Housing isn’t “rehabilitation,” Pendleton noted, “because so many of them were never habilitated to begin with. You are creating new lives for them.” With the exception of one person who died, all the tenants remained in housing 21 months later.
Pendleton isn’t striving for prestige or fame in solving an ill that blights much of urban America. He just likes ideas that work, and he wants to see them take root, regardless of who sows the first seed. “Housing First” isn’t unique to the Beehive State, but Pendleton’s precise methods are a primary reason why Utah’s rates of chronic homelessness are so low. The fingerprints of his orderly approach can be spotted all over the 10-year plan: its clear articulation of vision, its far-reaching collaboration and its experimental pilot projects.
According to Pendleton, every action must answer this question: Does this help the homeless into housing or not? “If you don’t have a crystal-clear vision about the homeless situation, then you just muddle along. You get poor results. You’re not getting people housed,” he says.
For Utah to solve such an intractable social problem, it also had to find support beyond the traditional partnerships. Pendleton’s résumé helped win the involvement of the business community and the L.D.S. Church, one of the most influential forces in the region. Their monetary contributions and participation in programs like job placement meant even “more and more people carrying the load with the county, city and state,” Pendleton tells the Deseret News. And once the strategy had been distilled, all those agencies focused their individual expertise on a specific aspect of the problem.
Despite playing different instruments, “We have been pretty much on the same sheet of music in the symphony,” Pendleton says of the collaboration.
To meet the goal Pendleton first dreamed of a decade ago, Utah still needs to house approximately 539 chronically homeless and 200 homeless veterans, according to the latest comprehensive report — far fewer than the 1,932 chronically homeless on the streets when he first started.
Pretty good for an “encore career,” don’t you think?
Part 1: Utah Set the Ambitious Goal to End Homelessness in 2015. It’s Closer Than Ever
Part 2: 13 Images of Resilient Utah Residents Who Survived Being Homeless
Part 4: Far From Finished: Utah’s 5-Step Plan to Continue Helping the Homeless
Let’s fix this country together.