How Utah reduced homelessness by more than 90 percent

Utah cut its chronically homeless population by more than 90 percent. A shift from emergency relief to a prevention approach is saving Utah and other states money and reduces homelessness. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A homeless man asks for money as he sits on the ground on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Utah’s chronically homeless population has dropped by 91 percent since 2005, and may altogether be gone by 2015. The state has achieved this by approaching homelessness in an innovative, although simple, way:

If someone is homeless, give that person a home.

While some critics may argue that this solution simplifies a complicated issue by ignoring the social, economic, and mental health components that factor into homelessness, Utah and other states are discovering that by investing in people’s most basic needs, they are better able to address the other factors that lead to homelessness. And they are doing so with less money.

Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, was not always a believer in the state’s current method of addressing homelessness, initially saying the idea was “totally unrealistic.” But now he says that prioritizing a home for those without has drastically changed the way the state can deal with other factors, including unemployment.

“It’s a philosophical shift in how we go about it,” Mr. Pendleton said, reported NBC News. “You put them in housing first … and then help them begin to deal with the issues that caused them to be homeless.”

The chronically homeless are identified as those who have been without a home for over a year, or for four times in three years and have a debilitating condition. Since 2005, Utah’s chronically homeless population, which makes up about 10 percent of the homeless population, reduced from 1,932 to 178 individuals, reported NBC News.

While they are a small percentage of the overall homeless, they are responsible for 50 percent of what the state spends on homelessness. Including health and jail costs, the state of Utah spends about $19,208 per homeless person per year. Comparatively, the “Housing First” strategy provides a home and caseworker to that same person for $7,800, cutting the cost by more than half while helping maintain personal dignity.

“It’s more humane, and it’s cheaper,” Pendleton told NBC News. “I call them ‘homeless citizens.’ They’re part of our citizenry. They’re not them and us. It’s ‘we.’”

The Colorado Coalition for the homeless, which serves more than 15,000 homeless individuals and families annually, conducted a study that revealed multiple positive effects of its “Housing First" program. Of the 400 individuals in the Colorado program, they reported a 96 percent housing retention rate, as well as a drop of more than 72 percent in emergency service costs.

But the housing-first approach only works if there is enough affordable housing to go around, The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

In Boston, housing is so tight that it is not uncommon for people to wait four to 10 years for affordable housing, says Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

Massachusetts is one of 20 states that reported an increase in homelessness from 2012 to 2013. The increased need for emergency housing has become so great that the state has had to resort to placing families in motels because there are not enough shelters.

But when homes can be found, the approach is cost-effective, even in places with a lack of low-cost housing. In 2011, Massachusetts’s Home & Healthy for Good program looked at Medicaid, shelter, and incarceration costs for homeless individuals before and after providing homes. The per-person costs dropped from $33,514 per year to $8,539 after housing. New York, Seattle, Maine, and Chicago have also implemented “Housing First” programs with positive results.

James Surowiecki, who pens The New Yorker's "Financial Page," said that financially, the “Housing First” model approaches homelessness with a preventative mindset rather than treatment. In the long run, the US spends large sums to treat and cure problems — be they social, economic, or health related — when in fact its more fiscally responsible to invest upfront. He writes:

Our system has a fundamental bias toward dealing with problems only after they happen, rather than spending up front to prevent their happening in the first place. We spend much more on disaster relief than on disaster preparedness. And we spend enormous sums on treating and curing disease and chronic illness, while underinvesting in primary care and prevention. This is obviously costly in human terms. But it’s expensive in dollar terms, too.

Maybe giving homes to the homeless really is that simple. Surowiecki writes:

“The success of Housing First points to a new way of thinking about social programs: what looks like a giveaway may actually be a really wise investment.”

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