Utah is entering the final stretch of its 10-year plan to end homelessness, but that doesn’t mean the state’s work is over.
The number of chronically homeless individuals has dropped from 1,932 in 2005 to 539 last year. If numbers continue to decline this year, the state will reach what’s known as a “functional zero,” meaning that Utah will have housed all the chronically homeless who will accept it and have the capacity to shelter the rest. Just like the “functional zero” economists use to calculate unemployment doesn’t include the baseline of people switching jobs, Utah won’t include in their data the minority who refuse housing, says Lloyd Pendleton, the state’s homelessness czar. “We can’t force them into housing. That’s called jail,” he notes.
Despite the Beehive State’s success, a larger population always teeters precariously on the brink. Utah’s total homeless population has grown 12.5 percent — from 11,275 to 12,685 — over the last decade. These individuals will need somewhere to stay when a landlord evicts them, when parents scream that they’re not wanted or when an abusive spouse makes them fear for their safety. So achieving functional zero doesn’t mean that Utah’s homeless shelters can close up shop tomorrow.
“We’ve demonstrated [Housing First] works. We have achieved remarkable results. Now we’ve really got to amplify and fortify our existing service delivery,” says Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, Salt Lake City’s emergency shelter.
What steps will the state’s task force take to address the broader issues surrounding homelessness?
Construct more housing.
When the comprehensive plan was first implemented, Utah quickly built up 821 apartments for chronic homeless individuals, including 100 units at Sunrise Metro in 2007, another 200 at Palmer Court in 2009, 110 units specifically for veterans at Freedom Landing in early 2010 and 59 units for the elderly homeless later that summer. Since then, however, construction’s stopped. The latest reports estimate there’s an unmet need for 718 units for individuals and 553 units for families. Because of this, the number of chronically homeless inched up for the first time since “Housing First” began in Utah. To address this, state, county and city governments, plus The Road Home, are nearing the final stages of inking a deal to build 300 more units of permanent supporting housing, says Liz Buehler, Salt Lake City’s homelessness coordinator.
For low-income earners already living in homes, there’s a slightly different problem — though just as pressing. From 2000 to 2010, Utah gained 59,800 new renters but built only 21,100 new apartments (while vacancy rates for existing ones stood at 3 percent), meaning construction met just one-third of the need. With demand surging, those in or near poverty might be squeezed to the point where they may become homeless. To bridge the gap, the state plans to construct and subsidize rentals.
Ramp up job placement.
After “Housing First,” the new creed is “Employment Second.” Meeting that goal requires a new conception of what employment means, which, to Utah is “the ability and willingness to work at least a few hours per month.” One program, the Clean Team (funded by the Downtown Business Alliance, Salt Lake City government and several banks), pays those without homes to clean the 10 blocks around a homeless shelter. Workers pick up garbage and steam the sidewalks, sprucing an area burdened by its reputation for drug deals. Caseworkers also help their clients with job searches and applications, interview-appropriate clothing, transportation, expungement of criminal records and referrals for childcare and schooling. Initially, 38 percent of those moving into permanent housing had no income, but the case managers are helping to reduce that number to 27 percent after a one-year checkup or by the time the person leaves.
Utilize databases to rank clients by need.
When Pendleton first proposed a small pilot project to test “Housing First,” he asked service providers to dig up their worst cases. The shortlist was designed to score a political point — proof that if the luckless few could be housed, almost anyone could be — but it also contained an essential premise that would guide work for the next decade: Units should be targeted at the most vulnerable members of the community.
“Housing First” is a simple idea, but several programs still rely on a first-come-first-serve waiting list, instead of prioritizing their limited resources. A computerized network will allow for coordinated assistance between all the service providers in any county statewide. For instance, if somebody shows up at a shelter, a case worker can pull up their background, assess the situation and connect them with the best response, whether he or she is best suited for rapid rehousing — programs that help families return to their own apartments by providing a couple months’ rental subsidies — or limited supportive housing.
Assist at-risk groups before they hit the street.
As part of his own community service, Pendleton ministered to inmates and noticed that roughly seven percent of those released from prison would soon end up in homeless shelters. To help the formerly incarcerated transition, he’s working with the Department of Corrections on a pilot program that’s built a support network around 50 female inmates. He was sparked into action by one young woman who explained that her dad taught her to use drugs when she was just seven years old. “What chance did she have?” Pendleton asks. “We’re identifying those people in prison: the ones who have no support on the outside, no high school degree, no skills. They need additional support not to become homeless or go back to prison.”
Participants meet with volunteer mentors — “hairdressers in the daytime, mentors in the evening,” Pendleton says, “attorneys, mechanics, you name it” — for up to six months before their release date and during the year after. They’re connected with landlords scattered around Salt Lake City, given their pick of furniture from a Deseret Industries thrift store and connected with job opportunities through the Department of Workforce. Pendleton says it’s successfully reduced the recidivism rate by 25 percent, a figure he wants to increase on a larger scale.
Rethink homelessness entirely.
Utah’s push to house the chronically homeless helps those “most in need,” says Zach Bales, the chief development officer for Volunteers of America Utah and a licensed social worker. But that group was also the “low-hanging fruit,” he adds, many of whom became homeless because of larger social problems like inadequate mental healthcare, a scarcity of affordable housing or domestic violence. “But, you know, those are going to be the real topics,” explains Bales. So while Utah can provide appropriate housing, situations that lead to homelessness will continue to occur.
The state task force has united government and service providers, the Mormon church and businesses. They set lofty goals and have nearly met them. “Zero will happen,” Bales believes. In the back of his mind, he worries that “a decade or 15 years of talking about something is a long time to keep community interest. Can we keep the urgency alive long enough?” All eyes are on Utah to see what they do next.
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 3: The Compassionate Utah Official Who Believes in Housing First, Asking Questions Later
Let’s fix this country together.