Anti-homelessness campaign lags in rural areas

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Three years into a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, housing officials are struggling to get rural Utah to catch the vision.

Fewer than half of the 10 regional homeless committees have launched pilot projects. Unless rural communities do their part, the plan will fail, warns Palmer DePaulis, new director of the Department of Community and Culture.

It's now or never, DePaulis said at a statewide summit on homelessness last week. "We're at a tipping point."

But state homeless task force director Lloyd Pendleton says delays are to be expected.

"It's such a big geographical area and homeless are a real small piece of the population. People's plates are full. They have other pressing priorities," Pendleton said.

But in some areas, it's a matter of political will, or lack thereof.

The 10-year plan is part of a national movement promoted by the Bush administration. Under a "housing first" philosophy, it moves the chronically homeless into permanent housing, blanketed with medical and financial supports.

But in booming Washington County, singling out the chronically homeless when public school teachers and police officers can't afford homes is a tough sell.

"Affordable housing is the big emotional issue down there," acknowledges Pend- leton.

In other places experiencing the growing pains of oil and gas exploration, such as Moab and Vernal, political leaders have been slow to acknowledge homelessness as a priority.

"Our homeless population is not the typical homeless population. We don't have a soup kitchen, or vagrants sleeping in the park," said Heather Hoyt, a Uintah County administrator. "We have families who are being priced out of rents and couch surfing or doubling up."

Compounding the issue in San Juan County are bureaucratic tangles with American Indian tribes, who are cautious about housing opportunities that might impact their sovereignty, said Blanding Mayor Toni Turk.

"We've had to learn how to let them teach us what they need," she said.

But a project is under way to build affordable hogan-style homes on Indian land, Turk said. And Uintah County is opening a homeless shelter this winter.

But so far, the statewide plan has rested on mostly volunteer efforts of housing providers in Salt Lake City. Beginning in August 2005, 17 chronically homeless people were placed in virtually free apartments, no strings attached.

Salt Lake County also has launched a housing program for indigent convicts, people with mental illnesses and youths aging out of the foster care system.

Metropolitan areas have long complained of shouldering the state's homeless burden. The chronically homeless cluster there, because that's where they can find shelter, food and transportation.

But Utah is growing and changing and the status quo won't last, said Pendleton, who is urging rural counties to help prevent homelessness by curbing domestic violence and beefing up support for families living on the edge.

Pendleton also needs rural communities to step up their data collection. Citing time constraints and privacy concerns, domestic violence shelters and food pantries throughout the state have balked at logging client data into a two-year-old computerized tracking system developed, in part, to measure progress on the 10-year plan.

The result: annual homeless tallies that vastly understate the population, said Pendleton.

At the plan's launch in 2004, Utah reported 23,700 homeless. A computerized 2006 census pegged the number at 15,015. Pendleton said neither number is reliable. And without proof that pilot-tested strategies are working, he can't argue to expand them.

Those involved in the Salt Lake City housing experiment hope a University of Utah study will provide the proof they need. Midway into the two-year project, all but one of the 17 clients are still housed, freeing up beds at the state's largest homeless shelter, The Road Home.

One is employed, a handful have sought help for their mental illnesses or addictions and nearly all are receiving regular health checkups. One untested selling point, however, is the assumption that "housing first" saves money.

Jim Wood, a U. economist, released preliminary data last week showing the 17 have racked up an average of $32,800 in hospital and mental health admissions, jail bookings and shelter and detox stays. That's up from an annual average of $15,000, prior to their entering housing.

But Wood says the costs are being driven by rent and medical bills, expected to disappear as clients get stabilized and hooked into federal housing aid. He suspects that by the conclusion, pre- and post-housing costs will be the same.

Such findings would suit Michelle Flynn, associate director at the Road Home, who already judges the project a success. "We've improved people's quality of life," she said.

Who are the chronically homeless?

* The chronically homeless are defined as people who haven't had a home for more than a year, or find themselves homeless four times over three years. Most are middle-aged men with a history of mental illness, compounded by substance abuse.

* The chronically homeless consume more than half the resources devoted to combating homelessness, but are estimated to be less than 11 percent of the state's homeless population.