Goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015 'achievable,' advocates say

Published: Monday, April 30 2012 7:04 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Shannon has designs on one of the first meals he will cook in his new apartment at Sunrise Metro Apartments.

"I want a Velveeta grilled cheese sandwich and a can of tomato soup," Shannon said.

Shannon, a Vietnam War veteran who has been living in The Road Home homeless shelter for nine months, will have a place to call his own Tuesday in a 100-unit facility that provides housing and intensive case management for people who are chronically homeless.

A place of his own — a restroom he doesn't have to share with others — represents "freedom" and "a life" for the 61-year-old man.

"I can eat whenever I want. I can eat whatever I want. I'll have my own shower. I won't have to shower with 52 guys watching me."

Shannon, known among the homeless as "Uncle Buck," is among a significantly shrinking population of chronically homeless people in Utah. On Monday, Utah officials announced that the number of chronic homeless people in Utah has dropped 72 percent since 2005. From 2011 and 2012 alone, the number dropped 9 percent.

The numbers are derived from the annual Point In Time Count of the state's homeless population, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year's count occurred on Jan. 25.

Advocates for the homeless say the downward trend suggests that the statewide goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015 is a growing possibility.

Utah is in the eighth year of a 10-year initiative among government and nonprofit agencies to end chronic homelessness by placing people who are chronically homeless into permanent, supportive housing and surrounding them with services to address the issues that contributed to their homelessness such as physical and mental illness, substance abuse, low levels of education attainment or poor work histories.

HUD defines chronic homelessness as an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for more than one year. 

Longtime advocate for the homeless Pamela Atkinson concurs says Utah's "housing first" approach has been highly successful.

Many people who have lived on the streets for years are living in permanent supportive housing such as Palmer Court or Grace Mary Manor. "Very few have quit the program," Atkinson said.

Some 25 percent of people in permanent, supportive housing have part-time jobs, she said.

"You can watch their self-esteem growing. Some of my homeless friends tell me they feel worthwhile. They're gaining some self-respect," she said.

The count also showed that the overall rate of homelessness statewide increased by 13 percent in the past year, or a total of 3,527 counted during the 2012 Point in Time Count.

Among that number, 475 were unsheltered, compared to 442 in 2011.

Advocates pointed to a number of factors contributing to the overall increase in the rate of homelessness: the sputtering economy, joblessness and a dearth of affordable housing. A significant number of homeless people are on the cusp of being considered among the chronic homeless. 

Minkevitch said some 500 single men have come into shelter this year "consuming a good quantity of resources." However, the clients do not meet the government definition of chronic homelessness, which would make them eligible for more extensive services. Some have spent as many as 300 nights in shelter in the past year alone.

In other words, a new wave of chronically homeless could be developing, which means public and private agencies have an ongoing need to develop more housing options to address the issue.

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