Instead of Criminalizing Homelessness, Utah Is Doing the Opposite — And It's Working

An aerial shoot from a mountain of Utah during winter season

After Barbara Simons left her abusive husband and the house they lived in together six years ago, she had nowhere to go. She was without a job and her daughter, Jamie, was struggling with mental health issues. She ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and feared she'd become homeless.

Then she heard about a program run by the state that would pay for her and Jamie to get an apartment with no strings attached. The Housing First program started in 2005, and Simons says it might have saved her life.

"I don't know if I'd be alive," Simons told Mic by phone. "Or I'd be alive and living on the street. It just helped me get back on my feet. It showed that people cared about you."

Even though Utah is one of the most conservative states in the nation, it has become a leader in progressive policies meant to help the homeless. By proving that a conservative state could solve its chronic homelessness problem for less money than traditional homelessness policies, Utah has become a model for towns, cities and states across the nation.

In an era when more and more cities and towns are effectively criminalizing homelessness – ticketing and arresting people for asking for change or lying on a bench – Utah has cut a different path.

"It's just so rational. We really should've figured it out a long time ago."

A simple solution to a vexing problem: In 2005, Utah's leaders asked themselves what all chronically homeless people have most in common, and found a strikingly obvious answer: the lack of a home. Their remedy was astoundingly simple: give homes to people without them.

"It's just so rational," Kerry Bate, the director of Salt Lake County's housing authority, told Mic. "We really should've figured it out a long time ago, but we had some mental blocks in the way."

Ten years ago, Utah realized it had about 2,000 people who were "chronically homeless" — adults who had been without a home for more than a year or homeless more than four times in three years. Even though the chronically homeless accounted for only 10% of the state's total homeless population, homeless advocates realized they used about 50% of the state's homeless services.

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The majority of the homeless population are only homeless for a few days or weeks, and then they usually get back on their feet (they check out of state-funded beds, hospitals and clinics) and get on with their lives. They stop being a burden to the state. The chronically homeless usually have deeper problems – mental health issues, addictions and other challenges that prevent them from getting stable jobs and housing. That means they often end up shuffled between state-funded programs for years, wasting precious state resources in the process.

"The intentions [of previous programs] were good, but what that really did was take the most challenged people and put up these barriers," Bate said. "It made it impossible to get out of this trap."

The program: Now, instead of piling on state-run service after service – hospital visits, prison, drug treatments, shelter stays – the state just gives homeless people homes. The idea is that having a house makes everything else much easier.

"Getting people off the streets and get them into housing just works," said Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in an interview with Mic. "Homelessness itself turns out to be a big barrier to all kinds of things, whether it is trying to get a job or trying to get an education or [trying to] stop a drug addiction."

The program has worked in Utah, where the state has seen a 74% drop in chronic homelessness since 2005, according to the New Yorker.

"We're at the point now where there are under 300 chronically homeless people in the state, and we're struggling to think, 'What does it mean when you've done it?'" Bate said. "But that's a fun place to be."

Why does such a conservative state support such a progressive program? Well, in addition to being effective, it saves a lot of money. Salt Lake City has calculated that it costs about $20,000 a year to serve homeless people the traditional way and only $8,000 a year to give them housing.

A model for the nation: Utah is far from the only place with a Housing First policy, but it may be the only state to have implemented it statewide. And from New York to California, from small towns to big cities, nonprofits and municipalities are catching on and proving that the policy works.

In Charlotte, N.C., a Housing First program that served 85 homeless adults was the subject of a two-year study that found residents experienced a 78% decrease in arrests, spent 372 fewers days in a hospital and spent $1.8 million less on health care costs. Another study out of Seattle found that participants in a Housing First program cut their average use of state-run programs from $4,066 before being housed to $1,492 after.

But despite Housing First becoming more popular all over the country, there's a worrying trend in other parts of the country: Criminalizing homelessness is on the rise.

A study that's tracked homelessness policy in 187 cities since 2009 found that 34% of cities have bans on camping, 24% ban begging and 53% have banned sitting or lying down in public places. These ineffective policies also seem to be increasing: The number of cities where it's illegal to sit or lie on a sidewalk went from 70 in 2011 to 100 in 2014, according to the study.

In one particularly high-profile case in Florida, a 90-year old man was arrested for giving food to a homeless person.

Lynne Sladky/AP

Why do municipalities continue to jail and ticket people for not being able to afford a home, even when its proven more expensive and less effective than just helping them? It just comes down to ignorance, experts say.

The way forward: The more Housing First programs are proven effective, and the more criminalization is proven expensive and counterproductive, the more places will turn to places like Utah for help.

"People just don't know," Berg said. "You have local decision-makers that feel they have to do something but they aren't necessarily familiar with the research or familiar with other communities. But when push comes to shove, people realize that what they're doing doesn't work, so they start looking for alternatives."

For people across the country like Barbara Simons, who are struggling to get back on their feet, that realization can't come soon enough.