After Barbara Simons left her abusive husband and the house they lived in together six years ago, she had nowhere to go. She was without a job and her daughter, Jamie, was struggling with mental health issues. She ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and feared she’d become homeless.
Then she heard about a program run by the state that would pay for her and Jamie to get an apartment with no strings attached. The Housing First program started in 2005, and Simons says it might have saved her life.
“I don’t know if I’d be alive,” Simons told Mic by phone. “Or I’d be alive and living on the street. It just helped me get back on my feet. It showed that people cared about you.”
Even though Utah is one of the most conservative states in the nation, it has become a leader in progressive policies meant to help the homeless. By proving that a conservative state could solve its chronic homelessness problem for less money than traditional homelessness policies, Utah has become a model for towns, cities and states across the nation.
In an era when more and more cities and towns are effectively criminalizing homelessness – ticketing and arresting people for asking for change or lying on a bench – Utah has cut a different path.
A simple solution to a vexing problem: In 2005, Utah’s leaders asked themselves what all chronically homeless people have most in common, and found a strikingly obvious answer: the lack of a home. Their remedy was astoundingly simple: give homes to people without them.
“It’s just so rational,” Kerry Bate, the director of Salt Lake County’s housing authority, told Mic. “We really should’ve figured it out a long time ago, but we had some mental blocks in the way.”
Ten years ago, Utah realized it had about 2,000 people who were “chronically homeless” — adults who had been without a home for more than a year or homeless more than four times in three years. Even though the chronically homeless accounted for only 10% of the state’s total homeless population, homeless advocates realized they used about 50% of the state’s homeless services.
The majority of the homeless population are only homeless for a few days or weeks, and then they usually get back on their feet (they check out of state-funded beds, hospitals and clinics) and get on with their lives. They stop being a burden to the state. The chronically homeless usually have deeper problems – mental health issues, addictions and other challenges that prevent them from getting stable jobs and housing. That means they often end up shuffled between state-funded programs for years, wasting precious state resources in the process.
“The intentions [of previous programs] were good, but what that really did was take the most challenged people and put up these barriers,” Bate said. “It made it impossible to get out of this trap.”by