Utah found a brilliantly effective solution for homelessness

Housing first homeless
In this Oct. 4, 2010 photo, Junior Rosario, 35, of Lowell, Mass., adjusts window blinds in an apartment he had recently moved into in Lowell, Massachusetts through a ‘Housing First’ program. AP Photo/Steven Senne

The entire state of Utah has fewer than 300 homeless people and will likely eliminate chronic homelessness by the end of the year, a housing expert told Mother Jonesthis week.

“We did it by giving homes to homeless people,” Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj back in January.

Since 2005, the state has reduced the number of people living on the streets by almost 75% by giving them access to permanent housing, no strings attached, according to Utah’s 2014 homelessness report.

The strategy, called Housing First, gives homeless people the stability that’s lacking in temporary solutions like shelters and halfway houses. The tactic began as a test by New York University psychologist Sam Tsemberis in 1992.

“I thought, they’re schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged,” Tsemberis recalls to Mother Jones. “Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, healthcare, and let them decide if they want to participate?”

Tsemberis tested his theory on 242 chronically homeless people in New York City. Five years later, 88% were still living in their apartments at a lower cost to taxpayers and the state government. The idea caught on in other places like Seattle, Denver, and the state of Massachusetts. The experiment in Utah is likely the most successful Housing First program.

The Housing First project began in Utah as a 10-year project with the goal of eliminating homelessness entirely by the end of 2015. While state legislators were reluctant to support the plan at first, they eventually embraced the idea, albeit cautiously.

And the housing is, indeed, permanent. People get to keep their state-provided apartment even if they keep abusing drugs or alcohol. In this way, Housing First has been more effective at keeping people off the streets than transitional housing, which requires that homeless people get a job and get sober before they are given more permanent options.

“If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it seems to work better,” Nan Roman, the president and C.E.O. of the National Alliance for Homelessness, told the New Yorker in September. “It’s intuitive, in a way. People do better when they have stability.”

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‘Daily Show’ correspondent Hasan Minhaj speaks to Russell Flowers in his Salt Lake City Housing First apartment. Screengrab/Comedy Central

Initially, critics feared Utah would lose tons of money by giving the homeless permanent housing, and that doing so would just “incentivise mooching,” as Minhaj put it. However, state officials found Housing First actually saving the government money over time, especially as it encourages individuals to become more self-sufficient, sooner.

Moreover, Housing First homes are not free: new tenants have to pay $US50 or 30% of their income to rent each month (whichever amount is greater).

Between shelters, jail stays, ambulances, and hospital visits, caring for one homeless person typically costs the government around $US20,000 per year. Providing one homeless person with permanent housing, however — as well as a social worker to help them transition back into mainstream society — only costs the state around $US8,000 annually, the New Yorker reported in September.

“Perhaps the most potent question raised by the program’s success is how safety nets, including a home to which people return each night, impact people,” Utah newspaper Deseret News wrote in an editorial last year. “There are two possibilities: first, safety nets undermine personal responsibility, or, alternatively, safety nets allow for mitigated risk-taking — and which can lead to real growth.”

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