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'Realistic opportunity' — Utah trying to end chronic homelessness

Published: Monday, Jan. 10 2011 10:50 p.m. MST

Ben Ely sits in his recliner in his apartment at Grace Mary Manor, where he lives after years of being homeless.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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.

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