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Dollars and Sense in Salt Lake City

Where We Sleep

Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:

The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.

On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.

Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.

There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.

One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:

Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!

Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.

Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.

In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:

A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.

The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.

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Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority