Utah’s solution to its homelessness problem is almost painfully simple: they’re giving homes to the people who don’t have them. The state has begun providing apartments to its chronically homeless through a program called Housing First. With plans of addressing the underlying issues that lead to the condition — including alcohol, drug abuse and untreated mental health problems.
As of last month, officials announced that they’ve reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent. Chronic homelessness is defined as spending at least one year on the streets. On May 24, Utah state officials announced that there are currently only 178 chronically homeless individuals in the state compared to an estimated 1,932 in 2005.
The Housing First program staff is now focusing on those remaining 178 people to get that number to zero. “We know these individuals by name, know their situation and we can help them move out of chronic homelessness, if they choose,” says Gordon Walker, director of the state Housing and Community Development Division. In many other states, how the government handles its homeless population does more harm than good. For example, police in Florida arrest those caught sleeping or keeping their things in public while Philadelphia bans feeding homeless people in city parks. A UC Berkeley study found that California has more anti-homeless laws forbidding people from resting in public than any other state. Utah is approaching the problem more compassionately and it’s working.
The cost of an apartment and social work for a homeless client in the Housing First program is $11,000 per year, while the cost of hospital and jail visits for those same people in other cities is close to 17,000 when they’re left on the streets. Those enrolled in Housing First pay $50 a month or 30 percent of their income.In Walker’s own words, “It’s not just more compassionate it’s cheaper.”
53-year old Terry Birch is just one person in the program who’s received such compassion. Forced onto the streets decades ago by an abusive stepfather Birch remarked, “I couldn’t believe I could get what I’d always wanted.” After moving into the modest one bedroom apartment with a warm bed and food in the kitchen he admitted that he never thought he’d be there very long. But Birch was diagnosed with Leukemia shortly after starting the Housing First program and when he learned of relatives getting rid of their cockatoo, Birch took it upon himself to take in the bird, now named Buddy, as his own. “He’s been a lot of company to me, even if he has been a bit grumpy lately.” Birch said playfully, adding that both the apartment and Buddy are helping him cope with his diagnosis.
Birch has started adding some creature comforts to his home including a television and a bookshelf filled with James Patterson and other mystery novels. Birch told the Los Angeles Times humbly, “Not bad for an old bum like me.”