Housing is a basic human right.
That is the simple belief that has driven Sam Tsemberis's work for more than 20 years. Known as the father of the Housing First model, Tsemberis founded Pathways to Housing on the east coast in 1992 to address chronic homelessness.
Chronic homelessness refers to individuals who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse problems or physical disabilities and have been homeless for at least one year or have experienced four episodes of homelessness over the past three years.
On Thursday, Tsemberis spoke to about 450 service providers and advocates gathered at Salt Lake City's Sheraton Hotel for Utah's 9th Annual Homeless Summit.
Tsemberis credited the success of the Housing First approach to having included key stakeholders chronically homeless individuals in designing the solution.
With their input, Tsemberis said he gained a new perspective.
"Poverty is what drives their day-to-day existence," Tsemberis said.
According to Utah's 2012 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness released Thursday, an estimated 16,522 people in Utah experienced homelessness a 15 percent rise over the previous year. And families accounted for 45 percent of that population.
That increase puts Utah's homeless rate at .6 percent of the state's total population, which is the same level as 2005 when the state embarked on its 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, said Gordon Walker, director of Utah's Housing and Community Development Division.
"We've been very successful in reducing chronic homelessness," Walker said, "But over that same period of time the [overall] percentage of people experiencing homelessness has gone up and down."
In 2005, more than 1,900 people were chronically homeless in Utah or about 14 percent of the state's homeless population. The number of Utah's chronically homeless has now dropped to 542 people or 3 percent of the state's homeless.
In 2012, Utah housed 559 such individuals in apartment complexes built specifically to provide safe and stable units with on-site support services.
Vaughn Davis. a certified nursing assistant for 28 years, lost his apartment in the Avenues in December 2006 when he could no longer work. In shock that he was suddenly "homeless," he found his way to The Road Home, a shelter in downtown Salt Lake City.
Davis moved into the Kelly Benson Apartments in West Valley City two years ago, structures that were freshly built to house the chronically homeless. At Thursday's summit, the audience gave him a standing ovation as he shared his story.
"I told myself I wouldn't do this," Davis said as his tears began to flow. "I can't express my gratitude enough. I feel like I'm starting to be able to give back to the community everything they gave to me."
Davis works a part-time job at Kelly Benson's front desk and also serves on various committees that advocate for the homeless.
Permanent supportive housing such as Kelly Benson also benefits the bottom line, Walker said.
"The cost, if you leave a chronically homeless person on the street, is about $20,000 a year," Walker said. "However, if you house that person and give them supportive services, the cost to the state and all the entities is about $8,000, so it's a significant savings."
Tsemberis received hearty applause when he blasted the Good Landlord programs that many cities have adopted that bar individuals with criminal backgrounds from renting.
"If you want to end homelessness, you have to embrace more risk," Tsemberis said. "With the current setup, one goal is inhibiting the other."
He also cautioned against the tendency to "label" people.
"That separates you from their experience," Tsemberis said. "You want to go as far out on a limb for everyone in this community as you would for your own people because these are our own people."
According to pathwaystohousing.org, more than 400 cities in the United States and Canada have 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness and 70 percent of those cities, Salt Lake City among them, have Housing First programs.
2012 a snapshot of Utah's homeless population
16,522 is the number of people who are homeless in Utah.
45 percent of that group are families.
3.3 percent of that group are chronically homeless.
86 percent live along the Wasatch Front, mostly in Salt Lake and Weber counties.
15 percent of homeless adults suffer from chronic substance abuse.
16 percent of homeless adults have a mental illness.
70 percent of unaccompanied homeless adults are men.
9 percent are homeless youth, ages 15 to 24.
Source: Utah's 2012 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness