In 2005, the State of Utah accepted the challenge from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to close the loop on chronic homelessness in a 10-year period. Utah chose to implement the “Housing First” model, a harm reduction approach that focuses on securing housing for homeless individuals before addressing other medical, behavioral, or social needs.
Lloyd Pendleton, the late Director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, stressed the importance of helping people find homes first: “We used to debate up at our university classes which theory of case management was the most effective. Now our theory of case management is: anything necessary to keep them housed.”
How Housing First Works in Utah
Every week in Salt Lake City, a group of leaders from local community-based organizations meet to evaluate housing openings and review the list of those in need. Because the Utah community is so tightly-knit, caregivers know most of the individuals by name and their circumstances, making it easier to decide where to place them.
An individual receiving housing does not have to stop abusing substances or be mentally stable to move in. Rather, by receiving a home first, newly housed individuals are afforded an opportunity to build trust in their caregivers - something they might have never experienced before, which generates opportunities for healthcare and social services to deliver more holistic care.
Every case is different. For some individuals, it takes time to adjust to their new homes, which means they might even spend a couple nights back on the street. However, once individuals grasp the idea that the house is theirs and that they can pay the rent (30 percent of income or up to $50 a month), they will stay 85 percent of the time.
Housing First’s Impact in Utah
Only 15 percent of the homeless population is marked as “chronically homeless”, meaning that they have been homeless for a year or more. However, that small percentage consumes 50-60% of homeless resources in the community and their emergency services expenses can range from $20,000-45,000 per person per year.
Getting these people off the street simply costs a lot less. After these people have been given stable living, community-based organizations in Utah have been able to work together to come to these people’s aid and provide a range of services. Individuals can find footholds to new options like part-time jobs, allowing them to gain new connections in the community.
The success of the Housing First model in places like Utah has become an example to communities globally. Since 2005, Housing First programs have been developed in Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and many more communities. Canada and Finland have both initiated national Housing First strategies as well, with Canada setting apart $119 million per year for five years to execute their projects. The trend continues as people see the stability this model can bring to a community.