New housing for homeless seniors opens, despite past controversy

Housing » Kelly Benson apartments will hold as many as 70 people once full.
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Weakened by pneumonia, James Herrin crawled out of his Salt Lake City apartment last year and waited in the hall for someone to find him. The childless widower ended up at Arlington Hills, a care facility, for the second time -- growing healthier as he watched his independence slip away.

The 63-year-old felt like "a caged tiger." Most of his Social Security money went toward his care and saving for an apartment seemed impossible.

Herrin had recently spent about two and a half years in homeless shelters and on the streets. Struggling with emphysema and a left hip that has been fractured three times over the years, the former supply boat captain couldn't go back to a homeless shelter. When a social worker told him about Kelly Benson Apartments, a new option for formerly homeless seniors, Herrin knew it might be a path to freedom.

In his new apartment on Thursday, a long clear tube ran from a rumbling oxygen machine to Herrin's nose. A cane leaned against his table.

"This is more like a home," he said. "You can prepare what you want to eat."

Among the 48 Kelly Benson residents, Herrin is among a few whose most recent address was a health care facility. Moving into independent housing decreases their toll on public coffers by thousands each month, officials say. A 2009 MetLife survey pegs the price of assisted living in Salt Lake City at an average of about $35,000 per year. At full capacity, Kelly Benson costs $7,896 per client annually.

"To house somebody is probably half the cost of them being homeless," said Lisa Hunt, the Kelly Benson evening property manager, noting the cost of shelters, law enforcement interventions and emergency room visits.

While Herrin watched an old Yul Brynner movie in his room, two residents one floor above were watching Mexico beat France in the World Cup. After living at The Road Home homeless shelter for almost three years, Eliodoro Ramirez, 59, appreciates the "good friends" he has at Kelly Benson. He hopes to improve his English using the building's public computer terminals.

The goal of moving frequently homeless people into permanent housing is opening up space for others more likely to pass through the shelter system quickly. Kelly Benson is the latest addition in the state's 10-year effort to end chronic homelessness. Hoping to live among their own age group, some seniors moved from buildings built earlier to Kelly Benson.

Officials believe the millions of dollars being spent on the new housing is paying off. In this year's annual homeless count, a one-night statewide census, officials found the number of chronically homeless had shrunk by 42 percent, though overall homelessness increased slightly. Shelters report a dramatic increase in families requiring help during the recession.

Kelly Benson will hold as many as 70 people once full, which is expected by the end of this month. The majority of residents have a history of homelessness and will pay 30 percent of their income for rent. Eleven units will be available to low-income renters. Staff expect those tenants will be a similar population, with a history of homelessness or health challenges.

Following a philosophy known as Housing First, caseworkers will offer residents access to employment, mental health counseling, medical care and other help.

All residents will be 55 and older, and must be citizens or legal immigrants.

Tenants are screened for a pattern of drug or alcohol abuse within the past five years, one concern raised by neighbors. People with a background of assaults, stalking, sex offenses or other violent behavior are also denied.

Former neighbor Scott Warr, whose house is now for sale, argued that the apartments should be located further away from students walking to school. Children cross Kelly Benson's parking lot to reach a pedestrian bridge over Bangerter Highway.

"We've had a lot of people come over and find out what it's really about," said Jenny White, the Kelly Benson services coordinator. "They heard it was a methadone treatment house or halfway house."

But many neighbors rallied to support Kelly Benson this spring as it prepared to open, helping to assemble furniture and making donations.

Herrin was surprised when he heard about neighbors' fears. He's lived in publicly subsidized housing and the Salt Lake City homeless shelter, where he stayed for nine months. He's glad to finally have his own sanctuary.

"That's totally unfounded," he said of neighbors' worries. "[Seniors] needed this place."

Homeless seniors move into new life

Who paid for Kelly Benson?

With an $8.1 million price tag, Kelly Benson is funded with a combination of federal low-income tax credits, stimulus money, Salt Lake County dollars, the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and small private donations.

Want to make donations?

Books and games, bus tokens, gardening supplies and gift cards for hair cuts are among the items needed. Call 801-270-1322 or 801-270-1320 for information.