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Chronic homelessness in Utah down 91 percent under decade-long 'Housing First' initiative

Published: Tuesday, April 28 2015 10:30 a.m. MDT

Todd Hansen, Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Rob Wesemann with Volunteers of America, and Aly Ainscough of The Road Home, confirm the whereabouts of their volunteers who were out talking to homeless people during the annual Point-In-Time Count of the homeless population in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. Chronic homelessness in Utah dropped 91 percent in the past decade under Utah's 'Housing First' initiative, state officials said Tuesday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Chronic homelessness in Utah has dropped 91 percent in the past decade under Utah's "Housing First" initiative, state officials announced Tuesday.

Utah's program places chronically homeless people in housing and supports them with services that help address the root causes of their homelessness such as physical and mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, low educational attainment, criminal records, or poor work histories.

The federal definition of chronic homelessness includes people who have experienced homelessness longer than one year or four episodes of homelessness in three years, and they have a disabling condition.

How few people are still considered chronically homeless in Utah?

"Of that 91 percent, the remaining balance is 178 people. We know them by name, who they are and what their needs are," said Gordon Walker, director of the state Division of Community and Housing, which takes the lead on the annual Point-in-Time Count of homeless people.

Nationwide, about 10 percent of the homeless population is considered chronically homeless, and they consume more than 50 percent of available resources for Americans experiencing homelessness.

Before "Housing First" started in 2005, about 14 percent of Utah's homeless population met the definition of chronic homelessness and consumed about 58 percent of resources.

"Before the 'Housing First' model, people had to change their lives, and then we would offer them housing. Now what we do is we offer them housing and allow them to change their lives if they choose to do so," Walker said.

Utah is the only state that has achieved such a sharp reduction in chronic homelessness on a statewide basis, he said.

"No other state is even close. We've had no additional resources than anyone else has had to do this, but by focusing, having a plan and having great collaboration with our partners, we've been able to see successes," Walker said.

While some of the remaining chronic homeless have been offered services and housing multiple times, "we're getting down to a small number and the greater portion are the harder to house," said Tamera Kohler, director of the Utah State Community Services Office.

Still, service providers and government agencies continue to work with chronically homeless individuals, some of whom have agreed to enter housing after many years of living unsheltered.

Overall, 14,516 people experienced homelessness in Utah in the past year, slightly up from a year ago. The numbers are annualized based on the Point-In-Time count.

The annual Point-In-Time Count collects data on the homeless and their use of services, and is used to guide federal funding decisions. On Jan. 29, homeless service providers and government agencies aided by dozens of volunteers, walked streets, riverbanks and neighborhoods to identify and count the state’s homeless population and collect other information.

Walker said homeless families have different issues than people who experience chronic homelessness.

"They may need first and last month's rent to get into an apartment. They may need a driver license. They may need a car repair. Their issue is usually something totally different than those of the chronic homeless," he said.

Homeless service providers work hard to re-house homeless families within about a month, but that time frame has increased due to a lack of affordable housing, providers say.

As for Utah's sharp reduction in chronic homelessness, Walker said, the story behind the numbers is "we set a goal and we worked at it every year. We've had terrific collaboration with our partners. Everybody in the community has worked together, and the community has compassion for these individuals. Everyone is treated as an individual, and thus, the services are tailored to those individuals who need the help."

While he admits the measure is anecdotal, the annual memorial service for homeless people helps tell the story of the success of 'Housing First.'

Early on in the initiative, Walker attended a memorial service for 53 people who had died. Their average age was 46. None of them was in housing.

At a service eight or nine years later, 74 people had died, but their average age was 52, and 49 were in housing. Permanent supportive housing made it possible for people to receive regular medical, dental and mental health care, among other needed services.

"My takeaway from what we've been doing is, people's lives have been extended or people's lives have been saved," he said.

Other states and cities frequently visit Salt Lake City to learn about "Housing First" and other approaches to homelessness, Walker said.

"They come and end up seeing collaboration. It's not extraordinary that we've built housing. We build housing every year. It is extraordinary who funded that housing. It is extraordinary that housing has been committed and it's extraordinary that the community comes together and cares for the individual."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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