How Salt Lake City effectively addressed the homeless

'This isn't a sprint. This is a marathon'

Homeless people sit on a curb in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2016 (KOIN)
Homeless people sit on a curb in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2016 (KOIN)

Editor’s Note: We’ve all seen how visible and troublesome Portland’s homeless problem is. With all the government is doing, why isn’t the situation getting better? KOIN 6 News reporter Tim Becker travelled to Salt Lake City, where the number of their chronic homeless has been reduced by more than 90%.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (KOIN) — Portland is home to more than 1000 chronically homeless people. About 760 miles southeast, Salt Lake City has seen the number of their chronic homeless population has dropped from nearly 2000 to less than 180.

Salt Lake City’s efforts have generated national headlines, praise and interest from across the country.

Chronic homeless is defined as someone living on the street for a year, or 4 or more times over the past 3 years

What makes Salt Lake City’s efforts work?

“I think part of it is we just stuck to it. This isn’t a sprint. This is a marathon,” said Tamara Kohler, the director of the Utah Community Services Office.

Kohler told KOIN 6 News Utah rolled out its initiative called “Housing First” in 2004. The city, county and state agencies all bought in — and stayed in.

“In some areas they would try it and say, ‘Hey, it didn’t work,'” she said. “Well, this doesn’t work the first time , doesn’t work the second time. You have to perfect it but you have to be commited to it and keep doing it.”

Homeless people on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2016 (KOIN)
Homeless people on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2016 (KOIN)

Portland introduced a 10-year plan to end homelessness around the same time as Salt Lake City, with a similar goal. But lack of cohesion between agencies created a noticeably different outcome.

While camps of cardboard, tents and tarps are popping up in Portland like mushrooms in a rain forest, it is visibly different in Salt Lake City. You’re hard-pressed to find blatant displays of illegal camping.

What Salt Lake City does

A former hotel is now home to more than 200 kids and adults who were once chronically homeless. They now have permanent, desirable and clean homes that cost 30% of income or up to $50 a month — whichever is greater.

Salt Lake City has almost 2000 beds in places like this.

“Salt Lake doesn’t have a bigger chunk of money than Portland. You probaby look at it and Portland has more,” Kohler said. “But what we’ve had is a singular commitment from all of the services providers.”

She is quick to point out they are still far from solving the full homeless problem in Salt Lake City, but she said they are headed in the right direction.

The shelter system

Matt Minkevtich runs The Road Home, the biggest homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, April 2016 (KOIN)
Matt Minkevtich runs The Road Home, the biggest homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, April 2016 (KOIN)

Matt Minkevitch runs the biggest shelter system in Utah — The Road Home — which has 500 more beds than Portland. He’s the first to say they still have a homeless problem.

“We’re full here every night. We don’t have empty beds in this shelter,” Minkevitch told KOIN 6 News. “We have the same issues that you have in Portland with respect to heroin usage and street drugs, criminal activity.”

But he also said agencies in Salt Lake City all agree it’s less expensive to house the most vulnerable than leave them on the street — where service costs-per- person annually run $30,000 to $50,000.

“I think that the people of Portland, of Salt Lake City and New York City and Los Angeles all value having people off the streets, all value having the poor’s suffering alleviated,” he said.

Alex, who is a 24-year-old resident, said that humanized and individual outreach is a huge part of what makes Salt Lake’s model successful, one that puts attainable housing above all else.

“For me, it allows me to be myself,” Alex told KOIN 6 News.

“The homeless population needs a human trust and interaction with outreach to actually make some inroads to move them into housing or even into shelter,” Kohler said. “It’s really hard when you keep herding them from one area to another.”

That seems to be Portland’s immediate answer to a problem that’s been beggin for a long-term effective solution — like those they’ve been passionately pursuing in Salt Lake City for more than a decade.

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