SALT LAKE CITY — Ben Ely's face lights up when he talks about the summer barbecues in the courtyard out back, monthly group hikes along the Wasatch Range and the Thanksgiving trip to Wheeler Farm with his neighbors.
After eight years moving into and out of homeless shelters, Ely is part of the state's vision that "everyone has access to safe, decent affordable housing with needed resources and supports for self-sufficiency and well-being."
Five years into the Beehive State's 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness, Ely, an Army veteran, is ensconced in this tidy little Salt Lake apartment with the American flag and drawings and a picture of Jesus on his walls. He has a kitchenette, a recliner and television, a bed and the ability to choose what he eats and how he lives.
"We'll never end homelessness completely, to where there's no homeless on the street," says Lloyd Pendleton, director of the Utah Homeless Task Force. "But we will get to where there is offered to every homeless person a realistic opportunity."
Most homeless people are just passing through a rough patch and require temporary shelter and aid, research and experts say. Homeless families are finding help through rapid re-housing efforts that get them out of a shelter as soon as possible and into subsidized housing. Those individuals considered "chronic" are a little tougher.
Of 3 million homeless across America, 300,000 are chronically homeless. In a given year in Utah, 15,640 are homeless, including 812 chronically homeless — which is down 58 percent since the state first started tackling this particular issue a half-decade ago. Chronically homeless is described as "an unaccompanied adult with a disabling condition homeless a year or more or three times in four years." Experts estimate community costs at $20,000 to $100,000 to serve each of those, from ambulance runs and emergency room services to contact with police, emergency responders and others. In Utah, cost falls at the low end of that range.
But that 10 percent who are chronically homeless reportedly consume half of all the resources put into services for the entire homeless population. And when the state decided in 2005 that "everybody is houseable," that's the group it targeted.
Utah experimented first to see if advocates and officials could select 17 of the most hardcore, chonically homeless individuals they could find, working with everyone who provides services. "We took the toughest of the tough," Pendleton says, and put them into housing. Twenty-two months later, all were still in housing (nationally, 85 percent were still housed after 18 months).
In 2007, Sunrise Metro opened with 100 units and a slew of community partners to make it work, including Housing and Community Development, local governments, homeless advocates, Utah Housing Corporation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, private industry and others. Salaries come from stimulus money and the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund, as well as other sources. Funding is a complicated patchwork of private and public money and making sure there's enough is an ongoing challenge.
A year after Sunrise Metro opened, Grace Mary Manor's 84 studio apartments opened. Then Palmer Court added 201 units in May 2009, followed by Freedom Landing with 110 units for homeless veterans in early 2010. Kelly Benson has 59 units and 70 beds for homeless individuals 55 and older, as of last summer. Some of the units for homeless coexist with weekly rental units for low-income working or pensioned individuals. That's true at Palmer Court, for example.
More than 500 people who were considered chronically homeless are no longer homeless at all. They are housed and in many cases working hard on issues like substance abuse and mental illness that contributed to their homelessness. Statewide, communities — Ogden, Helper, Price, for instance — are opening housing specifically for the chronically homeless. And Utah, wholly sold on the concept, is now turning its attention to the thought that "all can be employed." An employment project will launch at Palmer Court soon. "It might be five hours at minimum wage and not 30 hours with benefits," says Pendleton, "but everyone can make a contribution."
By adding the 479 units so far, the state has saved about $7.3 million in costs to community systems and freed shelter space for 2,203 homeless individuals who have then been served in existing shelter programs, with no expansion.
A stable address does more than take the danger and uncertainty of the street out of someone's life. It gives people a way to collect pensions and other resources they're owed but cannot access. It instills a sense of self and value. Some have been so far removed from having choices that they're stunned to find they can adjust their own thermostat, says Marni Timmerman, a program manager at Grace Mary Manor.
The complex has a vending machine and very active resident's group. The two are related. As the resident group discussed what it wanted, that machine turned out to be important. Choice of all kinds matters to the human spirit.
Madeline Hawes Wesson points out that she bought the quilt on her bed from the Blair catalog. She's tall and immaculately dressed and obviously intelligent but seems a bit distracted. A quarter-century ago, she was a payroll clerk at a bank for many years, but later, she says, she lost her housing and had no job and ended up at Rescue Haven, where she found shelter. "Being homeless," she notes, "is frightening." And it's a fact that while some people worry about homeless people preying on them, they are more apt to be preyed upon and victimized, says Pendleton, who originally got involved with the homeless while he was on loan from the Mormon Church. Already once retired, he now works for the state.
At Grace Mary, where Wesson has lived since April 2008 and serves on the resident council, she has hot and cold water and can cook her food the way she likes it. But she has been unable to find a job. "I've even sent my resume out of Utah," she says. "I am very capable of working, but there are no jobs."
Tell someone you are — or were — homeless and it is hard to get work, experts say.
While ordinary life beats within the walls of Grace Mary's studios — the getting ready for work and winding down, the day at home with the flu — the community comes indoors, as well, holding board meetings and holiday parties and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Its friendly fa?de sometimes draws the casual house hunter who doesn't realize the population being served, says LuJean Johnson, assistant property manager. Like many apartment buildings, you need an access card to get in and there's a security team that includes off-duty police officers who work shifts and get to know a population with which they typically have had a very different relationship.
Residents can socialize or not and as long as they're not creating a problem, they can live as they wish. Spotting a man named Tim and his dog Tiko sit quietly in the office, Pendleton says a comfort animal is allowed if it's needed, unlike at shelters. Some homeless individuals wouldn't go into shelter because they had dogs. He has seen their importance: One man, described as always bouncing off the walls and aggressive, calmed down when he was allowed to get a dog, Pendleton said.
Most apartment complexes don't offer case managers or counselors, experts trained in crisis intervention and mental health issues. That's a vital part of the push to end chronic homelessness.
Palmer Court houses both families and individuals and property manager Karen Grenko says sex offenders and those with a violent criminal past cannot live there.
Downstairs, there's a Head Start Program where cheery little Jordan LaChance, who was born after his mom moved there, dances and plays and learn things with other children that will help them be ready for and do well in school. With families living right upstairs, attendance is not an issue, says manager Kate Murphy. And it fosters a real relationships between the teachers and families. This particular Head Start reaches children 6 weeks to 5 years, most from the building, but a few from the homeless shelter and from the neighborhood. The same program operates at nearby Horizonte School for teen moms and between them they serve close to 80 children.
Because it's there, some of the parents are now back in school themselves, Murphy said, circling back to find out what might have been — and make it so.
Minimum rent for all of the housing targeting the chronically homeless is $50 a month, going up based on income, though there are temporary hardship waivers available if needed. The units are furnished with sturdy, handsome items. Deseret Industries Manufacturing makes the beds, the tables, the chairs and donates them.
When they first proposed housing people who are chronically homeless, there was a tendency by officials and others to "awfulize" situations, Pendleton says: "It would be awful if this, it would be awful if that." So they built in fences to ease minds and separate populations at Palmer Court, for example. A year and a half in, those fences stand strong, but the gates are usually open, the people just neighbors.