Utah’s Unique Housing for the Homeless

(Last Updated On: December 31, 2018)

Increasing poverty rates and a shortage of affordable low income housing have created a housing crisis around the US. While politicians criminalize homelessness and the public bemoans the housing crisis, homeless people continue to suffer on our streets and in our communities.

But there is a solution.

How Utah Reduced the Number of
Chronically Homeless People by 91%

In 2015, Utah achieved a landmark victory against chronic homelessness. The chronically homeless population had been reduced by 91 percent! Although there are still about 14,000 homeless people in Utah, this reduction is a significant and incredible achievement.

Adopting a Housing First model made all the difference.

Under the Housing First program, chronically homeless Utahns don’t have to prove they are sober and drug-free before they qualify for housing. What they do have to prove is that they have a disabling condition and have been homeless more than a year or four times in the last three years.

Why these requirements? Because 85% of the homeless population is only homeless for a few weeks or months. It’s the chronically homeless that strain the system, overfill the shelters and cost the government tens of thousands of dollars per year in services.

Clients who receive housing under this program must pay 30% of their income to rent or $50 per month, whichever is greater. They remain in the program for only a year, but so far most of the people helped through this program have maintained their housing after that time.

When the Bush administration adopted the Housing First model, conservatives pushed back. Many people agreed with Lloyd Pendleton, who was quoted by NPR as saying, “”And I said you guys are smoking something, because there’s no way on this earth that you’re going to end homelessness… I was raised as a cowboy in the west desert and I have said over the years, ‘You lazy bums, get a job, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.'”

Everything changed for Lloyd when he attended a 2003 conference on homelessness in Chicago and realized that the chronically homeless cost the government $30,000 to $50,000 per person every year. These costs are accrued in jails, emergency rooms and through other services.

And then there’s Reno’s infamous “Million Dollar Murray,”
whose homelessness cost the government an outrageous sum.

This was a revelation. Instead of simply believing the government shouldn’t give away housing, Lloyd realized the government was already spending more and doing less. As the head of the Utah Housing Task Force, he knew what had to be done.

Now, the chronically homeless are being housed and Utah saves $8,000 per homeless person per year. Everybody wins!

This is the first step to truly helping homeless people.

We could, as a country, look at the root causes of homelessness and try to fix them,” writes Scott Carrier at Mother Jones.  One of the main causes is that a lot of people can’t afford a place to live. They don’t have enough money to pay rent, even for the cheapest dives available. Prices are rising, inventory is extremely tight, and the upshot is, as a new report by the Urban Institute finds, that there’s only 29 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income households. So we could create more jobs, redistribute the wealth, improve education, socialize health care — basically redesign our political and economic systems to make sure everybody can afford a roof over their heads.”

“Instead of this, we do one of two things: We stick our heads in the sand or try to find bandages for the symptoms.”
After years of working with low income people, I believe that we are quickly running out of band-aids. The real solution to homelessness requires a precise, painful, even surgical correction of antiquated traditions and flawed ideas… but it’s time to make the change.



Mother Jones: Room for Improvement

National Association of Realtors: Social Benefits of Homeownership and Stable Housing

National Coalition for the Homeless: Why are People Homeless?

NPR: Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness by 91 Percent; Here’s How

Washington Post: The surprisingly simple way Utah solved chronic homelessness and saved millions


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