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Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness By 91 Percent; Here's How

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on February 1, 2016 7:42 pm

A decade ago, Utah set itself an ambitious goal: end chronic homelessness.

As of 2015, the state can just about declare victory: The population of chronically homeless people has dropped by 91 percent.

The state's success story has generated headlines around the country, and even The Daily Show With Jon Stewart looked to Utah to understand how the state achieved its goal.

In fact, Utah still has a substantial homeless problem. The overall homeless population is around 14,000.

The chronically homeless, on the other hand, are a subset of the homeless population that is often the most vulnerable. These are people who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a "disabling condition" that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that represents about 20 percent of the national homeless population.

By implementing a model known as Housing First, Utah has reduced that number from nearly 2,000 people in 2005, to fewer than 200 now.

'I'm Gonna Lay In The Bathtub For About A Week'

Kim Evans is one of those few who remains chronically homeless, and his life is about to change.

Right now he lives outside Salt Lake City, in the woods next to a highway.

Amanda Lee and Sanela Piragic, outreach workers from the nonprofit Volunteers of America, regularly visit him at his encampment.

Evans has cleared out a lot of the trees there. He says he likes to think of this place as his own park. He is 54 years old, but looks a lot older.

He has a tent with a fence around it made of wood, piles of tarp and grocery carts full of stuff he collects. He wears a good new winter coat, which was donated. He says he's been living outside for five years.

"Too long," says Amanda Lee, one of the outreach workers.

Evans agrees.

He has a bad back injury and has struggled with drugs and alcohol. When he talks, he's a little hard to understand. He said he's had a stroke and is missing some teeth.

But any day now, he's about to get his own apartment, mostly paid for by the federal government. He says he doesn't want to spend another winter in the woods.

"Now that the trees are thinner, it's even colder," Evans says. "I'm gonna lay in the bathtub for about a week."

Under a previous anti-homelessness model, Kim Evans would've had to prove he was sober and drug-free before he could get housing and take that warm bath. Or he might have just stayed homeless.

Under Utah's Housing First approach, he'll get housed with few questions asked.

A Doubter Becomes Director Of Housing First Efforts

The idea of Housing First is that housing comes first, services later. Clients do have to pay some rent — either 30 percent of income or up to $50 a month, whichever is greater.

A similar approach was first tried in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and New York City in the early 1990s.

Later, the Bush administration adopted the model, and cities and states started writing 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness.

"And I said you guys are smoking something, because there's no way on this earth that you're going to end homelessness," says Lloyd Pendleton, who at the time ran humanitarian services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He says as a conservative, he didn't think the government should simply give people a place to live.

"Because I was raised as a cowboy in the west desert," Pendleton says, "and I have said over the years, 'You lazy bums, get a job, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.'"

Then in 2003, Lloyd Pendleton went to a conference on homelessness in Chicago.

At that conference, a founder of the Housing First philosophy, Sam Tsemberis, told him that chronically homeless people cost the government a lot of money when they're living on the street, because of services like emergency room visits and jail time.

HUD estimates that annual cost as between $30,000 and $50,000 per person.

Housing them simply costs a lot less.

On the way home Pendleton says he sat in a window seat on the plane.

"And as we flew out and we flew through the clouds," Pendleton says, "I can remember looking out at the clouds and saying, 'Lloyd if there's any state in the union that can accomplish this, it's the state of Utah.'"

Back in Utah, he helped launch a pilot project in Salt Lake City that housed 17 of the hardest cases and provided them with services. Almost two years later, Pendleton says, all those people remained housed.

"Political people became believers, because it worked in Salt Lake City," Pendleton says.

Pendleton eventually became the director of the state's Homeless Task Force. And he got everybody all the way up to the governor on board.

According to Pathways to Housing National, Utah was the first to take the Housing First model statewide.

And even though many cities in the U.S. have also been doing this for a while, they still come to Utah to study why it's working so well here.

"I get probably two to five calls a week now, wanting to know how we did it, what's unique about Utah," says Pendleton, "because it can be done."

What Powered Utah's Success

Advocates and officials say a few factors helped Utah near its goal of ending chronic homelessness.

For one, Utah is small. Ten years ago, when the efforts first started, there were nearly 2,000 chronically homeless people in Utah. By comparison, there are currently more than 29,000 chronically homeless individuals in California.

Second, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has significant influence in Utah, was a big supporter of Housing First.

As well, Utah had a champion in Lloyd Pendleton — someone who believed in the idea and was willing to push politicians and advocates to go along.

And finally, most of the advocates and agencies in Utah know each other and work well with each other. They also know most of the homeless people by name.

Matching The Homeless With Homes

Every Tuesday in Salt Lake City, people in all the organizations that work with the chronically homeless gather in a small meeting room at a nonprofit called The Road Home.

On a recent Tuesday, Kevin Austin, the group's housing supervisor, looks through a list of 86 chronically homeless people in the Salt Lake region who qualify for housing.

Even though Utah is committed to Housing First, there still isn't enough housing for every one of the chronically homeless. And so the group has to assess need, and match the right apartment opening with the right person.

(For privacy reasons, NPR is not revealing clients' names.)

For instance, there's an opening at a group living site with shared bathrooms. Austin notes they need a candidate who is male and "plays semi-nice with others."

One person recommends a name from the list. And just before the group is ready to finalize that decision and move on, Ed Snoddy, who does medical outreach for Volunteers of America, a faith-based nonprofit, speaks up.

"He is notoriously dealing (drugs) right now," says Snoddy.

"Yeah, let's not do that then," says Austin.

The group agrees that this individual does not play nice with others, and isn't right for this particular apartment. For now, his name stays on the list.

The group works through a few more openings, trying to balance the needs of people living on the street with the housing available.

After the meeting, Austin says those decisions are tough.

"When we comb through and we're picking out three people from this list of 86," Austin says, "it does kind of suck to know that we left 83 people on that list that don't have an option — or at least a permanent option right now. But (for) those three people, that's their lifeblood."

Adjusting To A New Home, New Life

Grace Mary Manor is a two-story building with hallways lined with doors to studio apartments. It's one place in Salt Lake City where chronically homeless people are placed in housing, and it provides services like counseling on site.

Joe Ortega has been living at Grace Mary Manor for six months.

He has a 1,000-piece puzzle laid out in his room.

"It's my new addiction," says Ortega. "You know, it takes my mind off the old addiction."

Ortega used to drink a lot and do drugs. He says it's how he dealt with life on the streets. He was homeless for 20 years. For the past two years he lived under a bridge.

Then one day he started losing movement in his arms and losing his balance. He went to a doctor who told him to get sober.

"That was my first challenge," says Ortega. "Getting sober was the hardest."

It was right around this time that outreach workers started telling him that his name had come up, and that he was next on that list to be housed.

But Ortega didn't believe it. He says he kind of liked living in the streets.

"You think it's fun, when you first get out there," says Ortega. "It is fun to an extent. Because you're like, 'I've got freedom, and I don't have to answer to a landlord, and don't have to pay the light bill.' ... And that's what kind of keeps you out there."

Eventually the outreach team convinced him that the offer of housing was real.

"I was in shock at first," says Ortega "It was a little scary. I was scared. And I was like, 'What am I gonna do alone? I gotta find things to take up my time.'"

This is one challenge with housing the chronically homeless. Advocates say it takes time for people to get used to the fact that they have a home. Some people will sleep in tents, inside their apartments. Some will even go sleep on the streets a few nights a week.

For Joe Ortega, it means getting used to not having to hustle for everything — and getting used to being alone.

Ortega says he spends his days with puzzles or watching documentaries on TV.

"I make the best of every day," he says.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

So there's this news story that's been going around that the state of Utah has solved homelessness in newspapers and magazines and earlier this year on "The Daily Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

HASAN MINHAJ: Sir, have you seen any homeless people?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nope.

MINHAJ: Have you seen a single person living in a cardboard box?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, sorry.

MINHAJ: Where the hell did they put everybody?

MCEVERS: What's really happened is that Utah is very close to not having any more chronically homeless people. These are people who've been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years and who have a disability. That includes physical disabilities, mental illness or an addiction. Nationwide, that's around 20 percent of all homeless people.

A decade ago, Utah set a goal to house all of the state's chronically homeless people. And now they're almost there. The state's gone from nearly 2000 chronically homeless people to fewer than 200. Kim Evans is one of the few who's still out there, and his life is about to change. We go see him outside of Salt Lake City where he lives in the woods next to the highway.

SANELA PIRAGIC: Kim, it's VOA.

AMANDA LEE: Volunteers of America, homeless outreach.

MCEVERS: We go there with outreach workers Sanela Piragic and Amanda Lee. They're with Volunteers of America.

PIRAGIC: Where are you, buddy?

LEE: Hey, buddy.

PIRAGIC: There you are.

MCEVERS: Kim Evans has cleared out a lot of the trees here himself. He likes to think of this place as his own park. He shows us around.

KIM EVANS: This is a spring that runs back here. We can walk back there. It's beautiful. So this is Arrowhead Junction.

MCEVERS: Kim Evans is 54, but he looks a lot older. He's got a tent with a fence around it made of wood, piles of tarp and grocery carts full of stuff he collects. He wears a good new winter coat that was donated.

How long have you been here?

EVANS: Five years, so...

PIRAGIC: Too long.

LEE: Too long.

EVANS: Yeah, yeah.

MCEVERS: Five years out plus a bad back injury and drug use means Kim Evans is chronically homeless, and any day now, he's about to get his own apartment mostly paid for by the federal government. When he talks, he's a little hard to understand. He's had a stroke and is missing some teeth. He tells us he doesn't want to spend another winter in the woods.

EVANS: I can't handle another winter out here. It's - and now that the trees are thinner, it's even colder. I'm going to go lay in the bathtub for a week (laughter).

PIRAGIC: Hot water...

MCEVERS: Right. Hot water will feel pretty good.

EVANS: Yeah, it will, it will.

MCEVERS: Before, Kim Evans would've had to prove he was sober and drug-free before he could get housing to take that warm bath, or he might have just stayed homeless. Under Utah's Housing First approach, he'll get housed with few questions asked. The idea of Housing First is that housing comes first, services later. You do have to pay some rent - either 30 percent of your income or up to $50 a month, whichever's greater. A similar approach was first tried in Los Angeles in the late-'80s and New York City in the early '90s. Later, the Bush administration adopted the model and cities and states started writing 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness.

LLOYD PENDLETON: And I said, you know, you guys are smoking something because there's no way on this Earth that you're going to end homelessness.

MCEVERS: That's Lloyd Pendleton, who, at the time, ran humanitarian services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He says as a conservative, he didn't think the government should just give people a place to live.

PENDLETON: 'Cause I was reared as a cowboy in the West desert, and I have said, over the years, you lazy bums, get a job; pull yourself up by the bootstraps.

MCEVERS: Then, in 2003, Lloyd Pendleton went to a conference on homelessness where a founder of the Housing First philosophy told him that chronically homeless people cost the government a lot of money for emergency room visits and jail time - like, between 30 and $50,000 per person per year. Housing them simply costs a lot less. On the way home from that conference, Pendleton sat in a window seat on the plane.

PENDLETON: And as I flew out and we flew through the clouds, I can remember looking out at the clouds and saying, Lloyd, if there's any state in the Union that can accomplish this, it's the state of Utah.

MCEVERS: Back in Utah, he launched a pilot project in Salt Lake City that housed 17 of the hardest cases, 17 chronically homeless people. Almost two years later, all those people remained housed. Lloyd Pendleton eventually became the director of the Homeless Taskforce for the state of Utah, and he got everybody all the way up to the governor on board.

PENDLETON: So political people became believers because it worked in Salt Lake City. That then gave us the courage, the moral impetus, the political will to go forth and build that hundred units, the next year, 84 units, the next year, 201 units, the next year, 110 units and then another 59 units.

MCEVERS: Almost enough to house all of Utah's chronically homeless people. Utah was the first to take the Housing First model statewide. And even though many cities in the U.S. have also been doing this for a while, they still come to Utah to study why it's working so well there.

PENDLETON: And so I get probably two to five calls a week now wanting to know how we did it, what's unique about Utah because it can be done.

MCEVERS: Here's how it is done. Every Tuesday in Salt Lake City, people in all the agencies that work with the chronically homeless get together in this small office.

KEVIN AUSTIN: All right, let's get started.

MCEVERS: Kevin Austin, who works with a nonprofit called The Road Home, lets us record. We agree not to broadcast their clients' names. Kevin Austin has a list with 86 names on it - 86 chronically homeless people who qualify for housing.

AUSTIN: OK. We have a couple openings.

MCEVERS: Even though Utah is committed to Housing First, there still isn't enough housing for every one of the chronically homeless.

AUSTIN: So Spring Glenn group living, so we need to choose somebody that is...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Male only.

AUSTIN: Male only and that plays semi-nice with others.

MCEVERS: Someone recommends a name, then Ed Snoddy, who does medical outreach for Volunteers of America, says the man is a bad fit for the opening because he deals drugs.

ED SNODDY: You think (bleep) will play nice?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't think he will, really, no.

SNODDY: He is notoriously dealing right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

AUSTIN: Yeah, let's not do that.

MCEVERS: He does not play nice, the group agree, so for now, he's stays on the list. They talk about a few more names.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I got all her documents, finally. She's working. She's...

AUSTIN: And we know she's chronic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes, she is.

AUSTIN: OK, going today, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah.

AUSTIN: All right. Let's get two more.

MCEVERS: By the end of the meeting, three people get housed. Here's Kevin Austin again.

AUSTIN: And so we come through and we're picking out three people from this list of 86, you know, it does kind of suck to know that we left 83 people on that list who don't have an option or at least a permanent option right now. But those three people - that's their lifeblood.

MCEVERS: One place that chronically homeless people get housed in Salt Lake City is called Grace Mary Manor. It's a two-story building. Its hallways are lined with doors to studio apartments kind of like a hotel. A handful counselors and caseworkers are on site during the day. Joe Ortega has been living here for six months.

I'm Kelly.

JOE ORTEGA: Oh, hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: Nice to meet you.

He shows me his room and his 1,000-piece puzzle.

Oh, you got a puzzle going - nice.

ORTEGA: Yeah.

MCEVERS: How long does it take you?

ORTEGA: Oh, this took a couple months. This is my new addiction, you know? It takes my mind off the old addiction-type thing that I have.

MCEVERS: Joe Ortega used to drink a lot and do drugs. He says it's how he dealt with life on the streets. He was homeless for 20 years. For the past two years, he lived under a bridge. Then one day, he started losing movement in his arms and losing his balance. He went to doctor who told him to get sober.

ORTEGA: That was my first challenge. The getting sober was the hardest, you know, to let it go.

MCEVERS: It was right around this time that outreach workers started telling Joe Ortega that his name had come up, that he was next on the list to be housed. But he didn't believe it. He says he kind of liked living on the streets.

ORTEGA: You think it's fun when you first get out there. It is fun to an extent, you know, 'cause you're like, oh, I got freedom, and I don't have to answer to a landlord. And I don't have to, you know, pay light bill. If I get a housing or if I need my own apartment, I got to have deposit and, you know, rent and bills and...

MCEVERS: Rules.

ORTEGA: Rules, responsibilities, and that's what kind of keeps you out there.

MCEVERS: Eventually the outreach team convinced Joe Ortega that the offer of housing was real.

ORTEGA: Well, I was in shock at first, you know, because I'd never lived on my own

MCEVERS: Was it hard?

ORTEGA: It was tough. It was tough to - you know, it was a little scary. I was scared. I was like, oh, what am I going to do alone, you know? I got to find things to take up my time.

MCEVERS: This is one challenge with housing the chronically homeless. Advocates say it takes time for people to get used to the fact that they have a home. Some people will sleep in tents inside their apartments. Some will even go sleep on the streets a few nights a week. For Joe Ortega, it means getting used to not having to hustle for everything and getting used to being alone.

ORTEGA: I make the best of every day. My puzzle makes me happy. You know, I watch decent programs, and you know, I love documentaries. You know, I'll lay on the bed and just watch the whole "Nova" and "Nature" and - just love them things.

MCEVERS: Eventually, people get settled and are able to access health care and job training services. Again, all of this costs the state a lot less than if those people stayed on the street. So how was Utah able to house so many people like Joe Ortega? How did it have such a high success rate with the Housing First model?

First, Utah is small. Ten years ago when this first started, there were 2000 chronically homeless people in Utah. For a comparison, right now in California, that number is 29,000. Second, the LDS church has a lot of influence in Utah and was a big supporter of Housing First. And third, Utah had a champion in Lloyd Pendleton, someone who believed in the idea and was willing to push politicians and advocates to go along.

And finally, Utah is a place where most of these advocates and agencies know each other and work well with each other. And they know most of the homeless people by name. Here's how that homeless outreach team reacted when I asked them about Joe Ortega.

Did you guys work with Joe Ortega at all?

LEE: Yes. (Laughter) We love Joe.

PIRAGIC: We've known Joe for - I mean, the...

MCEVERS: That familiarity is one reason for Utah's success. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.