SALT LAKE CITY — Chronic homelessness in Utah is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Numbers are down for the sixth straight year as the state's Housing First initiative continues to prove itself.
"What is surprising to me is that people are willing to give up the freedom of the streets," Pamela Atkinson, an well-known advocate for the homeless in Utah, said Wednesday. For years, homeless people were offered treatment for whatever ailed them and caused them to be without a home, "but now we know they need housing first," she said.
"Once they have a roof over their heads, they are able to make the decisions they need to be more successful," Atkinson said.
The creation of more than 385 low-cost housing units in various neighborhoods in the last five years, coupled with a gradually improving economy, has kept more than 500 people off the streets.
"And they're staying off the streets," said Utah Lt. Governor Greg Bell. He said the net savings to taxpayers, in terms of conservation of services, is about $8,000 for each formerly homeless individual.
The chronically homeless, he said, typically consume 50 percent of available public resources — emergency rooms, prison cells, ambulance services and public safety personnel — yet they make up less than 10 percent of the total population.
According to the annual Point-in-Time Count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there has been an 8.2 percent decline in overall homelessness and a decrease of 26 percent in chronic homelessness since 2004, when the state adopted a 10-year goal to end chronic homelessness in Utah.
"The collaboration between government, non-profit and private agencies is the key to Utah's success," Bell said. "By placing our chronically homeless population into permanent supportive housing with case management, we have seen real change in individuals' lives and simultaneously created efficiencies without our community systems of care."
In addition, not one person was transported to the state's winter overflow shelter this year, whereas just two years ago, the state was busing more than 270 to the Midvale facility because of unbearably cold temperatures outside and overflowing homeless shelters.
"On almost any single night (this winter), there was excess capacity at our shelters," said Gordon Walker, director of the state's Division of Housing and Community Development. "No individual needs to go without a sheltered bed during even the coldest times of the year."
Under the state's strategy, chronically homeless citizens go from the streets or shelters into their own apartments. The housing is permanent and "affordable," meaning tenants pay 30 percent of their income for rent. The model also provides job training and other supports to help tenants re-integrate with society.
Atkinson said that when people have a home, they have access to social networks through their neighbors, which helps facilitate their integration. Drug and alcohol addictions, she said, are not the only thing that puts people on the streets.
The system in place, which she said has changed dramatically over the years, helps individuals receive the treatment they need to function as best they can.
"And that's what we like to see," she said.