1 of 12
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Carmen Ferguson-Francomanager, City Park Apartments community manager, talks with a resident at the complex in Salt Lake City Friday, Aug. 31, 2012. The apartment complex rents apartments to many clients including those from the Road Home under its 8-year-old "Housing First" initiative.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the marketplace of renters, a chronically homeless person will have trouble competing well with someone who has stable employment and a good credit rating.

But clients of a new initiative by The Road Home could get a leg up on other prospective renters with the help of a team of caseworkers, social workers, medical and mental health professionals, says Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the nonprofit agency. 

"We provide a little extra support than the average client coming to you," Minkevitch said.

The Salt Lake nonprofit, which shelters and supports homeless men, women and families, hosted a luncheon this past week to discuss its programs and encourage landlords and property managers to become partners in ending chronic homelessness.

Carmen Ferguson-Franco, community manager of City Park Apartments in Salt Lake City, said she attended the lunch to learn more about the new program and to explore how her company, AMC, can partner with The Road Home.

Some clients of The Road Home live in AMC-managed properties under other programs, she said.

The new initiative holds exciting possibilities, Ferguson-Franco said. "With all they offer, you could totally turn it around," she said.

Two units could be available for eligible clients this week, she said. Applicants will be subject to the same credit and background checks of other potential renters, she said. "I have an obligation to treat everyone the same."

But Ferguson-Franco said she is sensitive to the fact that many Road Home clients have fallen on tough times and need help getting back on their feet through the intensive case management that will literally bring services to clients.

Her advice to other prospective landlords? "Keep an open mind," Ferguson-Franco said.

"I would tell them to forget everything they 'think' they know about the homeless and The Road Home and get educated."

Another property manager, Denyse Smith, said she came to the lunch to learn about the nonprofit agency's programs and to determine if they can be partners.

"We've worked with other subsidy programs in the past. The majority worked out well," she said.

A few placements did not, but Smith said she is confident if problems arise that caseworkers and others working with clients will work to resolve the issues.

"We've had a working relationship in the past," Smith said of The Road Home. "I think it's a good opportunity to reach out and help our community."

Property managers attempt to keep occupancy rates of rental properties as high as possible, Smith said. Clients of The Road Home are another group of potential customers. 

The Road Home's housing program has a variety of housing subsidies and services, says director Melanie Zamora.

The Road Home would prefer that clients enter leases with landlords or property managers on their own and pay the rent from money they earn working or combined with government subsidies, Zamora said.

Another option is that The Road Home can enter master leases with private property owners.

"We have rent money we can invest," Minkevitch said.

While some clients of its "Housing First" initiative live in properties owned by the nonprofit or units managed by housing authorities, private partners are needed to supplement its public housing options. The goal of the program is to provide long-term stability to people who are chronically homeless.

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.

Comment on this story

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