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Scott G Winterton,
Homeless camp sites in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a small office in The Road Home's downtown homeless shelter, Kate Larimer leads a conversation with a young family about where they will stay tonight.

It's the first time they've sought help from the shelter but it is possible they won't have to stay there if they can put their heads together with Larimer to come up with a suitable alternative.

After exchanging pleasantries, Larimer asks, "Where did you stay last night?"

And depending upon the answer, Larimer, shelter diversion specialist for Salt Lake Community Action Program, takes the discussion to the next level: "Can you go back there?"

Often, the answer is yes, supposing it is safe and appropriate and steps can be made to lessen the load on the family member or friend with whom they have been staying.

It means that family won't have to enter the shelter and hopefully, their days of doubling up or couch surfing will be limited as they get started on a permanent housing plan.

"That's where talking about the long-term plan is beneficial. When they do go back to that family member, the discussion is now 'Can I stay here for X amount of days while I get connected to housing, while I get connected with these resources, until I'm able to get my permanent housing?' " Larimer said.

Jennifer Godfrey, Salt Lake CAP's chief operations officer of social services, said the nonprofit organization's new pilot program has successfully diverted seven families from the homeless shelter since its launch on Nov. 1.

None of the families have returned to the shelter since, Larimer said.

United Way of Salt Lake's Utah 2-1-1 service, which connects Utahns to health and human services in a confidential manner, and The Road Home, which shelters, houses and provides case management to homeless families and individuals, are partners in the pilot. When The Road Home's new family overflow shelter opens this week, Larimer will move her office there.

A second diversion specialist who works out of Salt Lake CAP's 764 S. 200 West location takes referrals from 2-1-1 and when possible, conducts diversion conversations over the phone. Because families show up at The Road Home's shelters at all hours, both diversion specialists are on call to assist over the phone.

The pilot was funded by by a $50,000 state grant, federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding and a grant from the LDS Church foundation.

The diversion

Iain De Jong, president and CEO of OrgCode Consulting Inc., is a nationally recognized expert on homelessness and housing. This past week, he trained Utah homeless services providers, government agency workers and others who work with homeless and low-income people on diversion techniques.

Diversion makes sense because most people who use homeless shelters leave after a short stay, De Jong said.

"If you look at longitudinal studies, it works out to be about 75 percent or higher of every homeless population, that it happens once in their life for less than 14 days and it's not repeated. That's good news. We just forget to talk about it. It's also a sign that maybe those people could have been kept out of homelessness in the first place," he said.

Cities with well-established diversion practices are able to find safe and appropriate alternatives for a sizable portion of people who come to shelters seeking emergency shelters.

Phoenix has been able divert 40 percent of people from its shelters. Waterloo, Iowa successfully diverts 58 percent, he said.

Despite the name, diversion isn't about turning people away from services or safe and appropriate shelter, De Jong says.

If the answer to the question "Where did you stay last night?" is a car or a place where the person is unsafe because of domestic violence, returning to those places is not an option.

While a stay in a homeless shelter might be the next step, some communities move families into hotels for short stays as an alternative to shelters, De Jong said. No single hotel should be used for this purpose, otherwise it becomes "that hotel where they send all of 'those' people," he said.

Diversion helps empower families to make the best possible choices for them and their children. Diversion specialists like Larimer help them see other options and teach them about tools they may not have known exist.

Aunt Ruth may be willing to allow her niece and her children to return to her home if they can do more to help with grocery costs. Some of that burden can be relieved by introducing the family to community pantries that can supplement the food Aunt Ruth can provide.

"Shallow" forms of assistance such as grocery gift cards tend to work best, De Jong said. Paying for past-due rent or utility bills rarely works out in the long run, he said.

However, mediating a dispute with a landlord is an appropriate diversion activity, he said. Some people just need access to a phone or computer so they can search for work and housing themselves.

Learning from the poor

Larimer said it is helpful that a state Department of Workforce Services caseworker is also housed in The Road Home's shelters. After meeting with families and coming up with a diversion strategy, Larimer walks the family to the DWS worker who can help them apply for food stamps, child care subsidies and search for jobs.

Diversion empowers people with information and other tools that allow them to seek alternatives to staying at homeless shelters. It also cuts shelter's operating costs and reduces children's trauma, Godfrey said.

De Jong said homeless service operators could learn many lessons from the nation's poor, the vast majority of whom are not homeless and never will be homeless, he said.

"Depending on what estimates you want to use from the Census Bureau, tonight in America there will be 49 million people living in extreme economic poverty. There will be about 600,000 who are homeless. Have you ever asked yourself how the other 48.5 million figured it out? And they figured it out completely independent of you," he said during his keynote speech at this past week's Homeless Summit in Salt Lake City.

Most do not live in public housing. They live in private housing and have very low incomes, sometimes even less than people who seek services at shelters.

"What we really need to do is figure it out from everyone else who is poor and has figured it out independent of you and then replicate it," he said.

The only cure for homelessness is housing, De Jong said. Diversion is a homeless prevention strategy, he said.

Larimer said she likes to think of her conversations with clients as an opportunity to collectively problem solve and then start on a path that ultimately leads to permanent housing and family stabilization.

While her meetings with clients are the first step in that process, Larimer said she has observed that families that look defeated as they walk into shelter feel differently once they have a road map.

"I definitely see a change throughout the process, coming in tired and discouraged and leaving with a plan. They're hopeful and they're excited they have another option," Larimer said.

Once the pilot is better established and there is more data to help guide future interactions with clients, Salt Lake CAP would like to expand the service, Godfrey said.

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"I'm hopeful that over time that this small pilot can expand and we not only look at families we can look at individuals that are coming to the shelter as well. I think it is really important to ask everybody at that door who's identified that they have no where else to go. I think these conversations should be had with all the clients that are coming into The Road Home," she said.

Diversion is being offered in a growing number of settings across the country but some agencies remain hesitant because it is new and operators fear some people they divert will return to unsafe environments, Godfrey said.

Others are just resistant to changes that may signficantly alter their operation, De Jong said.

"Never underestimate an organization's strong desire for self-preservation."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com