Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman worked with state legislators to launch a 10-year initiative to eliminate chronic homelessness back in 2005. Their initiative was based on a principle known as supportive housing – or ‘housing first’ in some circles. Did it work? Yes and no.
Housing first was touted as a simple, no-nonsense approach to eliminating chronic homelessness. Its basic premise was indeed simple: you end homelessness by putting people in homes. Yet nothing is rarely that uncomplicated. More than a decade after Utah’s supportive housing initiative launched, historians are looking back and seeing it was far more complicated than anyone had anticipated.
Identifying the Problem
Salt Lake City has no shortage of family homes, rentals, condos,and luxury homes for sale, say the experts at CityHome Collective. Even now, builders are hard at work trying to build enough new properties to keep up with local growth. Back in 2005, things were a bit different.
Politicians back then were tasked with identifying the root causes of chronic homelessness before they could figure out what to do about it. They identified mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and a general lack of social support. They determined that the best way to help was to provide housing first, then support services to help clients get their lives back on track.
The idea seemed quite plausible to the extent that state officials were willing to commit tens of millions of dollars to the housing first initiative. The feds contributed as well. Within just a couple of years, several new housing projects for the chronically homeless had opened. Thousands were being housed with the promise that their rents would never go higher than 30% of their income.
Not as Successful as Advertised
By the time Utah was reaching the end of its 10-year homelessness plan, the state was being touted by the media as a model for everyone else to follow. Some state officials were prepared to say that homelessness in Salt Lake City had been cut by 90%. In reality though, at least some of the reduction was merely the result of differing counting methods.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s Bethany Rodgers contends that the real reduction was probably closer to 71%. That is still quite impressive indeed, but not the near zero people were claiming.
Today, it would appear as though Salt Lake City’s homeless problem is once again emerging. But why? If housing first is such an enormous success, shouldn’t it continue to succeed year after year? Yes and no. Again, it is far more complicated than simple black-and-white answers.
Demand Never Falls
Understanding the scope of the problem requires admitting the fact that the demand for homeless services never falls. Just like City Home Collective sees a steady demand for housing inventory among its clients, public housing agencies see a similar demand for supportive housing.
Dig beyond the surface of mere statistics and you discover that many of the people living in supportive housing projects are there permanently. For whatever reason, they are unable to generate more income and move into traditional housing.
It stands to reason that if too many people become permanent residents, their permanent status works to reduce the number of available units for new residents. Thus, local and state officials have to keep approving new projects. That is exactly what is happening in Salt Lake City.
Housing first has definitely made huge strides in reducing chronic homelessness. They have not gotten to zero, and they likely never will. The root causes of homelessness and long-term impacts of programs like housing first are much too complicated for simple solutions.