How do you eliminate chronic homelessness? The problem seems so complex that the obvious solution is often overlooked. If you want to take people off the streets and put them on the road to a better life, you start by putting a permanent roof over their heads.
That's the philosophy behind the Housing First initiative that has been driving the fight against chronic homelessness in the Beehive State. You give them back their dignity by giving them a place to call their own. You give them the street address that potential employers and service providers demand. And you give them the stability and the assistance they need to find a job, beat their habits and solve their problems.
Those efforts are starting to pay off. The number of Utahns who are frequently forced to stay in shelters or sleep on the street fell by 42 percent in 2009, according to the state Division of Housing and Community Development.
The figures were derived from the annual statewide homeless count conducted in January, which found 3,372 homeless persons living in Utah, of whom 5.2 percent, or fewer than 200, were determined to be chronically homeless. In 2005, when the state launched its Housing First program in cooperation with local housing officials and nonprofit agencies, that group made up about 18 percent of Utah's homeless population.
Officials are finding success by fighting homelessness one brick at a time. Since the program's inception five years ago, four new or converted housing complexes offering more than 500 low- or no-rent apartments for the homeless have been built in Salt Lake County alone, with the added benefit of freeing space in crowded shelters for the temporarily homeless. Residents pay 30 percent of any income they receive as rent. Other homeless-housing projects are under way or planned in Price, Helper and Tooele.
For most people who find themselves without an address, advocates say, financial problems are the cause, and homelessness is a temporary state of affairs. A short stint in a shelter and a helping hand put them back on their feet.
But for the chronically homeless, homelessness is a higher hurdle. Their money problems are often compounded by substance abuse and mental health disorders, and they need help putting their lives in order. The apartment comes with a built-in support system -- on-site case managers, substance-abuse support groups, job fairs and other programs -- to enable residents to achieve their goals.
And the program is working, reducing chronic homelessness by 58 percent since its inception in 2005. Suddenly, the goal to end chronic homelessness in Utah by 2014 seems to be within reach.