In 2005, the state of Utah decided it was time to put an end to chronic homelessness. State officials and community partners teamed up to develop what turned out to be a truly revolutionary model to getting people off the streets. They called it the “Housing First” initiative, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Now, just ten years later, the goal no one thought possible is within reach.
Chronic homelessness is defined as people who have been homeless for over a year or have experienced four or more periods of homelessness in a three-year stretch. It’s a physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship of immense proportions. But it’s also an economic burden on communities… and that was the needed nudge that got the ball rolling.
The Economics of Chronic Homelessness
States and local governments across the country have tried to curb homelessness in various ways. Few have been successful, and some have been so frustrated by the problem that they end up passing legislation that effectively criminalizes homelessness as a desperate last resort.
Instead of adapting one of these failed models, Utah started fresh and reduced the challenge down to its two basic options: pay for the results of chronic homelessness, or pay to correct the problem up front.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]Spoiler alert… It turns out, it’s a whole lot cheaper to offer help up front.[/gdlr_quote]
So back in 2005, Utah calculated how much those two options would cost the taxpayers. They found that the annual cost of visits to emergency rooms and jail cells by homeless people totalled over $16,500 per person. They then did the math on how much it would cost to provide each of those homeless individuals with an apartment and a social worker, who could assist their transition back to self-sufficiency. Spoiler alert… It turns out, it’s a whole lot cheaper to offer help up front.
Providing “free” housing and “free” assistance to the chronically homeless costs just $11,000, saving taxpayers—who foot the bill for those E.R. visits and jail stays—over $5,000 each time a homeless person is taken off the streets. With the numbers laid out in such a crystal clear fashion, the choice was obvious… even for the staunchly conservative, ultra-Republican state.
Housing First: The Obvious Thing to Do
At this point, I have to take the opportunity to point out how absurdly obvious this solution really is. Aside from the economic benefit, helping people who are hungry, cold, and often dealing with serious health concerns is the only thing to do. It’s so simple, 5-year-olds get it.
Utah is now enjoying the amazing results of this realization. Last month, state officials announced that chronic homelessness has dropped 91 percent since the launch of its “Housing First” initiative. The now-proven model places homeless people in rent-free housing and supports them with services that help address the root causes of their homelessness, including physical and mental illness, addiction, and education.
Unfortunately, Utah stands alone with its success and is the only state that has achieved such dramatic results. “No other state is even close,” said Gordon Walker, director of the state Division of Community and Housing. “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.”
Starting to Take Notice
The good news is leaders from other states are making their way to Salt Lake City to study the “Housing First” model and similar approaches to ending homelessness.
“They come and end up seeing collaboration,” said Walker. “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.”
Here in the Fargo-Moorhead community, Churches United for the Homeless has taken notice of the “Housing First” program and its overwhelming success. The local faith-based organization is the largest shelter in northwestern Minnesota and the only one within 225 miles that is able to accommodate single men, single women, as well as one- and two-parent families.
Churches United has begun planning the development of an apartment complex (pictured above) that will closely follow Utah’s model of offering accessible housing to the homeless, a move that has drawn criticism from some in the community. Nonetheless, the organization already owns the land and needs no official approval to build. While they continue to seek—and encourage—community feedback in the design process, Churches United is moving forward with their plan in order to help meet our area’s growing need.
“Everybody needs housing,” says Jane Alexander, Executive Director for Churches United for the Homeless. “Housing helps people in all areas of their lives. Statistics show that other areas of your life improve when you housing is stabilized.”