The story of how Utah solved chronic homelessness begins in 2003, inside a cavernous Las Vegas banquet hall populated by droves of suits. The problem at hand was seemingly intractable. The number of chronic homeless had surged since the early 1970s. And related costs were soaring. A University of Pennsylvania study had just showed New York City was dropping a staggering $40,500 in annual costs on every homeless person with mental problems, who account for many of the chronically homeless. So that day, as officials spit-balled ideas, a social researcher named Sam Tsemberis stood to deliver what he framed as a surprisingly simple, cost-effective method of ending chronic homelessness.
Give homes to the homeless.
Tsemberis’ research, conducted here in the District and in New York City, showed this wouldn’t just dramatically cut the number of chronically homeless on the streets. It would also slash spending in the long run. In the audience sat a Utah businessman named Lloyd Pendleton. He had just taken over the Utah Housing Task Force after a successful run in business. He was intrigued. “He came over to me and he said, ‘I finally just heard something that make sense to me,’” recalled Tsemberis in an interview. “‘Would you be willing to come to Utah and work with us?’”
That conversation spawned what has been perhaps the nation’s most successful — and radical — program to end chronic homelessness. Now, more than a decade later, chronic homelessness in one of the nation’s most conservative states may soon end. And all of it is thanks to a program that at first seems stripped from the bleeding-heart manual. In 2005, Utah had nearly 1,932 chronically homeless. By 2014, that number had dropped 72 percent to 539. Today, explained Gordon Walker, the director of the state Housing and Community Development Division, the state is “approaching a functional zero.” Next week, he said, they’re set to announce what he called “exciting news” that would guarantee an “even bigger headline,” but declined to elaborate further.
How Utah accomplished this didn’t require complex theorems or statistical models. But it did require the suspension of what had been conventional wisdom. For years, the thought of simply giving the homeless homes seemed absurd, constituting the height of government waste. Many chronically homeless, after all, are victims of severe trauma and significant mental health and addiction issues. Many more have spent thousands of nights on the streets and are no longer familiar with home-living. Who, in their right mind, would willingly give such folk brand new houses without any proof of marked improvement?