In our opinion: Utah's Housing First program proves successful

Large decrease in chronic homelessness in past decade

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, June 21 2014 11:05 a.m. MDT

In 2005, Utah adopted a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. After almost a decade years, enormous progress has been made, with a current 72 percent decrease in the number of chronic homeless, from almost 1,800 to less than 500.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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In 2005, Utah adopted a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. After nearly a decade, enormous progress has been made, with a 72 percent decrease in the number of the chronic homeless, from almost 1,800 to less than 500.

In one of the leading examples around the nation of counterintuitive thinking, Utah has been giving away apartments to the homeless. It is a program has actually saved Utah money. For each homeless person, estimates for emergency medical bills alone are more than $16,000 a year on average. Giving them an apartment costs about $11,000. And it has drastically reduced the need for emergency medical visits.

Outside of medical, various other costs, including legal and justice system costs are estimated to add another $20,000 to $30,000 dollars a year (depending on the location). Utah’s housing, and support for the individuals once they are residing in a home, cuts those total costs by over half, all-in-all, from about $19,000 a year to under $8,000.

As we slowly make our way out of the recession, governmental budgets continue to be under the microscope. But there’s more to this story. Many of the homeless eventually become self-sufficient, even though the program doesn’t rely on that fortunate possibility to make it good investment for the state. Instead, although each participant has a caseworker to help in the quest for employment, they still get to keep the apartment even if they fail to find a job.

Designed by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the program was modeled after the “Housing First” program pioneered in New York City more than 20 years ago. This approach involves putting housing ahead of all other concerns. When followed, alcohol consumption rates have been found to go down, along with drug usage and public nuisance behavior. Each year some 10 percent leave the program and become fully independent, and only 6 percent are ejected the program. The rest continue to work year by year with their caseworker.

The surprisingly cost-effective solution is only one of many across the nation. Wyoming has its own “Housing First” program. A study released last month by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found that Florida residents pay less to house the homeless than to do nothing about it. "Each chronically homeless person in Central Florida costs the community roughly $31,000 a year," according to the Orlando Sentinel.

And the “tiny house movement” has also contributed to recent efforts in reducing homelessness in several places, including Texas, New York and Florida, where small homes, sometimes no bigger than a camping tent and often portable, are constructed by charitable groups.

The chronically homeless are only a small number of the total homeless each year, in Utah and elsewhere. (Chronic homelessness now comprises only 3.95 percent in Utah, down from 14 percent in 2005.) Overall homelessness, usually ranging from weeks to months, is also on the decline. But that is more related to the general improvement in job availability and the growth of the economy, as most homelessness is a temporary condition usually lasting only a few weeks.

Perhaps the most potent question raised by the program’s success is how safety nets, including a home to which people return each night, impact people. There are two possibilities: first, safety nets undermine personal responsibility, or, alternatively, safety nets allow for mitigated risk-taking – and which can lead to real growth. Both nuclear and extended families can function in the latter manner – together with innovative thinking through Housing First. We are hopeful for the program’s continued success.

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