Crystal Spencer, left, talks to her daughters Sandra Anderson, right, and Phoenix Anderson, middle, in their two-bedroom apartment at the Palmer Court Apartments.

Kim Raff for NationSwell

Utah Set the Ambitious Goal to End Homelessness in 2015. It's Closer Than Ever

In the first of a four-part series, NationSwell examines how Utah is faring in its quest to end homelessness with one simple idea.

Crystal Spencer desperately needed a home for her three little girls. A single mother in her thirties, Spencer had lost her job at a Utah gas station and, in the twilight of the Great Recession, couldn’t find work elsewhere. Notices stacked up from her landlord, utility companies and bank.

“It was overwhelming. I just couldn’t keep up,” Spencer recalls. “I moved out because I knew I couldn’t do it.” She loaded her daughters — just babies at the time — into the back of her Dodge Durango and went to The Road Home, an emergency shelter just west of downtown Salt Lake City. As Utah’s largest shelter, its interior consists of a stripped-down dormitory. Plastic-covered mattresses on bunk beds can sleep more than 200 men each night, and its bathroom stalls, as a safety measure, don’t have doors. Spencer’s family had the small privilege of staying in a room closed off from the main beds, but she said it was “very uncomfortable” not having any privacy. Fearful of who was coming in and out the shelter, she never let her girls wander from her side.

Crystal Spencer's daughter, Sandra, watches a movie in her bedroom at the Palmer Court Apartments. Kim Raff for NationSwell

In any number of American cities, Spencer would be required to jump through bureaucratic hoops — prove you’re sober, get a job, never miss a meeting — before her family would receive assistance. But in Utah, “Housing First,” an initiative to place the homeless into supportive housing without any prerequisites, now prevails. Because of it, Spencer quickly moved to a two-bedroom apartment at Palmer Court, an old hotel renovated into 200 units and opened by The Road Home in 2009. In the 13 months since, she’s caught up on all her debts and is on a waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher. She decorated the apartment with framed pictures of her daughters — Sandra, 4, a nimble athlete fond of doing handstands on the living room recliner; Sierra, 2, a gregarious dancer and singer; and Phoenix, 1, a quiet observer — and the paintings they made at the on-site Head Start classroom.

“It was very difficult being homeless…[My kids] didn’t really understand what was going on. They still don’t,” Spencer says. “Right now, I am trying to go forward with my life, so I can move out and get a place of my own. The only thing I see myself doing is taking care of my kids. Hopefully, in my own house.”

Utah’s initiative isn’t just for hardworking moms like Spencer: it’s helping veterans haunted by war, the mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts. “Homelessness itself turns out to be a big barrier to all kinds of things, whether it is trying to get a job or trying to get an education or stop a drug addiction,” Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at The National Alliance To End Homelessness, tells Mic.

Resident Alan "Sarge" Brown walks through the courtyard at the Palmer Court Apartments. Kim Raff for NationSwell

As the decade-long plan initiated by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman wraps up this year, the Beehive State’s “Housing First” program has already reduced chronic homelessness (those with deeper disabling conditions, like substance abuse or schizophrenia, who had been on the streets for a year or longer or four times within three years) by 72 percent and is on track to end it altogether by this time next year.

Media coverage ranging from The New Yorker to The Daily Show has pointed out that “Housing First” is a no-brainer. In reality, however, it’s been a herculean task 10 years in the making.

When the plan rolled out in 2005, Utah counted 1,932 chronically homeless adults. These individuals composed only 14 percent of the state’s total homeless population, but they were consuming the majority of agencies’ scarce resources. For instance, The Road Home found that the small group of chronically homeless used 60 percent of the shelter’s beds, according to executive director Matt Minkevitch. “Once we saw that, we really wanted to move forward.”

The front entrance of the Palmer Court Apartments in Salt Lake City. The complex provides housing for people who are chronically homeless. Kim Raff for NationSwell

In Utah, a homeless person relying on shelters and soup kitchens costs the community $19,200, while the expenses of permanent housing and case management run just $7,800. For some, the price of law enforcement and medical expenses is astounding: One chronically homeless individual in Salt Lake City, for example, racked up $563,000 in emergency room charges in 2010; another had hospital bills that almost topped $1 million over three years.

Liz Buehler, Salt Lake City’s homeless services coordinator since 2013, says the state jumped into action when service providers realized they couldn’t rely on “diminishing resources” from the federal government. “If you put someone in a house, it’s half the cost of that person receiving services in the shelter. So why not put them in housing?” Buehler asks. “It’s not only giving them security, you can also help more people.”

Housing First’s backers are quick to note that they’re not giving away apartments for free: the new tenants have to abide by lease agreements (a handful have been evicted) and contribute $50 or 30 percent of their income to rent each month (whichever amount is greater).

For every 10 chronically homeless people housed through the program, eight are still in rapid rehousing units and one has moved on to other stable housing.

Caseworker Anna VanDrunen, left, speaks with a client at the Palmer Court Apartments, Jan. 16, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Kim Raff for NationSwell

Minkevitch, a former hotel manager who migrated to the nonprofit sector to help “the weariest of travelers” at The Road Home, says the state’s success has taken even the most experienced caseworkers by surprise. “I know people who have been in this field for years, in this line of work for like 20 years, and as they were talking about clients, their eyes would light up like at Christmas,” he says. “They’d just laugh like it was the funniest, most beautiful joke, sitting here right under our nose all this time: we’d always known if a person has a home, they’re not homeless.”

READ MORE:
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
Part 4: Far From Finished: Utah’s 5-Step Plan to Continue Helping the Homeless

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.