Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Men stand outside the men's shelter entrance as the Road Home shelter shows new security screening area in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Few things are as enduring as the myth that the Salt Lake metro area solved its chronic homeless problem in 2015 by giving people housing.

I’ve gotten emails that demonstrate how widespread the story was told, including one from a woman in San Diego who told me the leader of a regional task force there was talking about Salt Lake’s success and urging that city to duplicate the “housing first” program.

She had been researching the subject and wondered if the glowing reports from here, claiming a 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness over 10 years, were true.

Another came from a man in Corvallis, Oregon, who was listening to officials there talk about the need for a Salt Lake-style housing program in an historic part of town.

He was worried. Were the reports coming out of Utah correct?

No, as it turns out, they weren’t.

This isn’t exactly news. The Deseret News reported these problems more than a year ago. But that was part of a larger series on homelessness. It wasn’t the focal point of those stories.

But now we have a performance audit of Utah’s homeless services, conducted by Utah’s legislative auditor general and released Monday, that makes the incorrect data clear. Between 2005 and 2010, the state counted people in transitional housing as being chronically homeless. After 2010, the state stopped classifying them that way.

Also, the federal government used to take its annual Point-in-Time count — an exercise in which officials literally walk the streets and count the homeless in large cities nationwide on a given night — and annualize it by multiplying “by some factor,” according to the audit. But in 2015 officials just used the raw number.

As a result, it looked as if the numbers of chronic homeless dropped dramatically in 2010 and again in 2015.

“It appears Utah officials did not consider these factors when concluding that there had been a 91 percent drop in the rate of chronic homelessness,” the report says, adding “we do not know the extent to which Utah efforts have helped reduce chronic homelessness.”

Also unclear is the real effect of the Housing First program. Has it helped? Probably. State officials involved with it certainly believe so.

Meanwhile, glowing reports about the 91 percent drop in the L.A. Times, Washington Post, NBC News and on “The Daily Show” continue to reverberate.

The report states the obvious: “Utah needs to utilize consistent and reliable data to be able to continually evaluate program performance.”

Housing First isn’t the only victim of poor record keeping. Monday’s audit revealed how the entire homeless services system “still lacks clear goals and objectives and continues to have difficulty measuring the results of the services it provides.”

In some cases, auditors found data was entered incorrectly or inconsistently. And if you’re thinking politicians somehow were tipping the data in their favor, that wouldn’t explain how the mistakes sometimes made things look worse than they actually were. A count in Salt Lake County, for instance, concluded that 68 percent of the people enrolled in a Rapid Rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. Instead, auditors concluded that 74 percent of those people never got subsidized housing in the first place.

The problem seems to have more to do with poorly trained or underpaid workers, who frequently leave for better jobs, than anything else.

Next year, three new homeless shelters are scheduled to open in Salt Lake County. The downtown shelter on Rio Grande Street is scheduled to close. This will be a dramatic shift in how the homeless are treated in Utah. Taxpayers are on the hook. More importantly, lives are at stake. It’s vital to get this right.

9 comments on this story

From the beginning, advocates have talked about the need to make homeless services “data driven.” Track the people and their progress. Keep what works and change what doesn’t. That must be done in a credible way.

The audit suggests Utah create an oversight body that would set goals, plan strategically and monitor results, or that lawmakers charge the current State Homeless Coordinating Committee specifically with doing this.

Either one would make sense. Utahns, and especially the homeless, deserve as much. As interest from other cities has shown, a lot of people are watching to see how it goes.