How Utah Solved Their Homeless Crisis
What we can learn from Utah’s Housing First model
The coronavirus pandemic has wrecked havoc for many families in America. One in ten small businesses have permanently shut down, costs of goods have soared, agriculture sales have fallen, and millions are facing an eviction crisis. And that could add to the 522,000 who are currently homeless. Homeless individuals and families when they get evicted don’t disappear but migrate to other communities throughout the country. But is there any solution? Is there a way that takes homeless people off the street that’s more cost effective? Turns out there is, and it comes from the most conservative state in the union.
The Mormon State and Conservatism
In the 1840s, settlers from the Jesus Christ of latter-day saints (LDS) led by Brigham Young migrated west to establish a territory to practice their religion. For over 150 years the Mormon church has played an influential role in the state of Utah. According to the latest Census data 60.68% of state residents are members of the Church, along with 81% of state legislatures and all members of the congressional delegation. From referendums, to environmental laws, to tax policy, to same sex marriage, the church holds a LOT of sway. The buck stops with the LDS.
While other religions tend to have a lot of conservative elements, Mormons are no exception. But this brand of modern conservatism is because of one person: Ezra Taft Benson. His philosophy was influenced by distrust of the New Deal (which largely benefited states like Utah) and the John Birch Society which accused President Eisenhower of being a Communist. Benson, as a member and President of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), infused these far-right conspiracies with social issues which tilted Mormons from moderate to conservative. Although since his departure the church is conservative on social issues, they have moved somewhat to left on some economic issues.
Utah’s Housing First Program
The Mormon State had a problem. While homelessness is an issue in every state, there is a subset of that called chronic homeless. Chronic Homelessness is where a person has not been a year and have a disability, individuals that are often ignored among policy makers. And they represent 20% of the homeless population. With a growing population and homeless population becoming an issue, something had to be done.
In 2003 Lloyd Pendleton was a senior member of the humanitarian services arm of the LDS church was listening to a lecture at the University of Chicago forum and didn’t believe it at first. As a conservative he had a preconceived notion that the homeless should somehow ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’. But he kept an open mind and listened to Sam Tsemberis explain that chronic homelessness costs a lot of money. The extra costs of policing, evicting campsites, emergency room visits, and jail time adds up. According to HUD the total costs would be $30,000 — $50,000 per chronic homeless person. However, the total costs associated with housing, rehabilitating, and helping them find gainful employment costs a fraction of that.
Pendleton thought about it as his plane soared from Chicago to Salt Lake City and became convinced that if any state could do it his could. He helped set up a pilot program in Salt Lake City that focused on 17 chronic homeless people and provided them with an apartment, a counselor and a job seeker. It was cheaper to house the homeless, have a mental health counselor check in weekly, and help them get a job than evicting campsites using the hundreds of police. Those people still had a home by the time he convinced the state legislature to adopt a ten-year program starting in 2005. Pendleton was elevated to become head of the Homeless Task Force.
How it Works
The program starts by looking at individuals who are chronically homeless and sees which ones would be the most suitable to adjust to an apartment. They get their name, their age, their marital status, ask if they have any history of drug use, and other personal information. From that list they record where they are currently living at the moment and use that information from their questionnaire to see if they are capable of fully adjusting to modern life with the right social support.
An outreach team by Volunteers of America then goes through a list and asks if they would like to have their own place to live instead of the streets. Would they like a warm bed to sleep in during the winter? To be away from the noise of the traffic? To be warm in the winter and cool during the summer? The initial reaction is disbelief, so the team give them a few days to think it over before coming back to ask them again. The answer is almost always yes.
Joey Ortega was living on the streets for over twenty years migrating from place to place. To cope with people looking down on him and the constant noise of traffic he turned to drugs and alcohol which began to affect his arms and legs. After a visit to an emergency room when a doctor told he had to stop drinking, Volunteers for America asked him if he wanted an apartment. He was skeptical at first until the team convinced him that it was the real deal. A mental health counselor would check in with him each week and provide him with the support he needed.