A new lease on life starts with a place to call home

Published: Sunday, Sept. 2 2012 3:37 p.m. MDT

The strategy, now in its eighth year, has resulted in a 72 percent decline in the number of chronically homeless people in Utah since 2008. From 2011 and 2012 alone, the number dropped 9 percent, according to the annual Point In Time count required by the federal government.

Living in permanent, supportive housing is far less expensive than costs incurred cycling in and out of emergency shelters, frequent visits to emergency rooms and calls to first-responders.

Portland, Ore. has experienced $16,000 savings in public resources a year for each chronically homeless person served by the "housing first" model, according to one national study.

The federal government defines chronic homelessness as an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for more than one year or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Alyson Ainscough, project director of The Road Home's chronically homeless services and housing program, said aside from reducing costs, having a place to call home can be life changing.

One client, who is mentally ill and had lived on the streets in Utah and Florida for 15 years, refused offers of help for years.

When offered even the basics such as food or new socks, he'd say " 'I'm OK. I don't need anything,' " Ainscough said.

But after repeated visits, he started to accept small gestures, such as food or clothing.

After a while, he developed enough trust in caseworkers and outreach workers that he applied for housing and other public assistance. He was eventually placed in housing but caseworkers learned he continued to sleep on the streets.

A caseworker who had developed a relationship with him over the years remembered that the man had once mentioned that he enjoyed playing the piano.

A short time later, the caseworker brought the man a keyboard, which helped him feel at home.

"His face just lit up," Ainscough said. "That made all the difference in the world for him.

"If a caseworker hadn't worked with him, he wouldn't have known that. That relationship-building really goes a long way." 

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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