Homes for the Homeless

If one were to ask a 6-year old how to end homelessness, their response would probably be to give people homes. But if one were to ask the same question to a politician, the lengthy, meandering answer might include such ideas as personal responsibility, rent-controlled apartments, social values, private charity, or community development. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), the state of Utah has discovered that the 6-year old might be on to something.

In 2005, Utah began a focused battle to end chronic homelessness in the state. Following a model known as Housing First, Utah took a straightforward yet radical step: it provided homes to the chronically homeless. And it has worked. By 2015, chronic homelessness in Utah had fallen 91 percent, from 1,932 people to 174. While such sweeping success would seem to require major spending and an innovative policy response, what it really required was a bold vision and a steadfast commitment to helping those in need. How the program works is relatively simple. First, Utah identifies the people that are chronically homeless — people that have lived without a home for more than a year (or 4 times in the last 3 years) and that have some sort of “disabling condition.” Next, Utah matches those people with available housing, much of which was built by the state specifically for this purpose, with 90 percent of that construction money coming from the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. These new residents are not burdened with stipulations and other requirements commonly found in homelessness prevention programs elsewhere, such as sobriety or medication requirements. Caseworkers often encourage residents to seek mental-health care or substance-abuse treatment, but this is not a condition of being in the program.

Admittedly, the Housing First model in Utah only benefits a portion of the homeless population there. The chronically homeless only make up 20 percent of the national homeless population, and Utah still has about 14,000 homeless people. However, it’s important to keep in mind that eliminating overall homelessness is not the goal of Utah’s program, and it’s disingenuous to imply that the program has failed because it hasn’t done something it didn’t even set out to do. This program has enjoyed a successful start, especially because chronically homeless people are usually the hardest for the government to help — and the ones that use the most government resources.

While just giving people homes without them having “earned” those homes might seem to exemplify wasteful government handouts, Utah’s housing program has actually saved the state money. Before the implementation of the program, each chronically homeless person cost the state around $20,000 per year, mainly for welfare, incarceration, and health care. With the program in place, the state only spends around $8,000 per chronically homeless person. The resulting decrease in spending has added up to millions in savings over the program’s existence.

With these savings and effective results, conservatives and liberals alike can find reason to support this program. Solving a pressing social issue without creating larger deficits is rare, but, in this case, Housing First is both a fiscally conservative and socially liberal success story. Furthermore, when these formerly homeless people have stabilized in their new homes, they are empowered to join the workforce, providing a better chance to advance themselves economically and become participating taxpayers. Communities as a whole also benefit from this program; the installation of homeless people into new houses makes communities safer, as chronically homeless people are at risk of hurting themselves and others when living on the streets. Moreover, the reduction in cost diverts taxpayer money to other purposes or saves it entirely, potentially opening up funds for additional community revitalization and development.

Additionally, since the previously homeless are now less likely to be seen as (and thus less likely to feel like) a resource-consuming blight, they are conferred a sense of dignity that life on the streets precluded from them. When success is merely measured in percentages and dollar signs, losing track of what’s really at stake is easy; this dignity reaffirms the human success of Utah’s Housing First program. Utah has given people on the margins of society the tangible means to a safer and better life, by treating its chronically homeless population as a group of people who deserve homes — not as a group that should be blamed for shortcomings often outside of their control.

By 2015, chronic homelessness in Utah had fallen 91 percent, from 1,932 people to 174.

The success of Utah’s program and the appeal of the Housing First model have inspired similar efforts in other areas around the country, but these have been met with mixed results. In New York City, for example, a Housing First program enacted during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration led to a 59 percent decrease in chronic homelessness from 2005-2013; however, Bloomberg also cut programs aimed at the general homeless population, and 60,000 people are without a home in NYC, the highest level since the Great Depression. In Santa Clara, California, on the other hand, a Housing First initiative called “Destination: Home” has seen initial success; the initiative housed 850 people from 2011 to 2014. There still remain 2,500 chronically homeless people in Santa Clara County, but the community has a 5-year plan dedicated to ending all forms of homelessness within its borders.

Replicating the success Utah has found may prove to be difficult in other areas of the country, often for completely legitimate reasons. In other communities with different racial or economic demographics, implementation might not follow the same pattern. Especially in big cities, skyrocketing housing prices can make new construction or rent subsidies economically prohibitive. These are real, rational concerns. Certainly, jumping into a program that spends valuable resources on traditionally low-rate-of-return individuals may not be prudent, especially when there are questions about its efficacy. But what is just as certainly unacceptable is ignoring the problems of homelessness entirely or scapegoating those who are currently without a home.

While the fact that very few homeless people vote is true, lack of political incentive serves as insufficient rationale for neglecting a vulnerable constituency. No matter how idealistic one’s conception of politicians is, it’s hard to deny that they are more likely to serve the constituencies that voted for them. If the homeless don’t vote, programs that would benefit them are less likely to be considered. Since combatting homelessness is a potentially costly and controversial issue, it makes political sense for politicians to push it to the wayside. The Democratic and Republican Party platforms in 2012 both talk little of addressing homelessness, with a focus on veterans’ homelessness in both cases. This relative neglect by national leaders seems to leave the issue up to states and localities — as has happened in Utah and Santa Clara County.

Luckily, states and localities are potentially better suited to tackle homelessness. On the national level, homelessness can be seen as more of an abstraction, a regrettable reality that should probably be dealt with. In smaller communities where the effects of homelessness are visible, leaders could be more responsive to mitigation efforts. Aside from the obvious solution of electing representatives who care about all of their constituents and not just the ones who give them political support, better outreach and communication could increase the likelihood of homelessness prevention programs being enacted. When citizens learn of the financial benefits that Housing First programs may provide, they may rally around the issue, even if they are not homeless themselves. Furthermore, states could do a better job reaching out to register homeless voters, especially since their lack of a permanent residence may make registration confusing. Organizations like Homeless Not Powerless are already fighting for the rights of homeless voters, but a concerted effort by governments demonstrating that they care about homeless voters too would send a strong message both to communities and the politicians that represent them.

A model like Housing First that has demonstrated some effectiveness in ameliorating an issue as challenging as homelessness deserves to be viewed and further explored as a potential solution. Utah’s 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness may not be able to be matched nationwide, but even replicating a portion of that success would be a step in the right direction. With ingenuity, persistence, and an eye towards addressing one of the most challenging issues of our time, more places like Santa Clara can succeed in emulating the state of Utah. By definition, homelessness can only be reduced when more people have homes. Instead of fiddling around with minor proposals, perhaps governments should look to the simplistic yet most important step — the one being recommended by hypothetical 6-year olds everywhere: giving homes to the homeless.