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How Do You End Homelessness? If You’re This State, You Offer People Homes

For years, Utah has addressed its homeless problem by simply offering apartments to those who lack a home.

As the holidays come, many of us will draw closer to friends and family, basking in their generosity, caring and warmth. For the country’s homeless, the holidays are much less friendly, and the streets are much, much colder.

What if it didn’t have to be like this? If homelessness is really, at its core, the lack of having a home, then isn’t providing a home the most elemental way to end the crisis?

That’s exactly what the state of Utah is doing. For years, Utah has addressed its homeless problem by simply offering apartments to those who lack a home, worrying about the details of the exchange later. The plan, called Housing First, was launched by then Governor Jon Huntsman and started providing apartments to the homeless in 2005. The hope was that by having a home and a caseworker to assist them, the chronically homeless would be able to regain their footing, allowing them to find it more easy to find jobs, access healthcare and other issues that are impossible without a stable address. Even if they fail to turn around their lives, however, they can still keep their new home.

What about all of those people who would say there is no such thing as a free home? Well, the cost to taxpayers, according to Utah, is far less than the costs of hospitalization or prison, actually saving the state on a per person basis. According to the state, a social worker and an apartment comes to a rough savings of $5000 per participant.

Utah projects that by the end of 2015, the state will no longer have any homeless population, having essentially eliminated homelessness within their borders. Now, Wyoming is thinking they will give the plan a try, too. For them, the need is drastic. “Wyoming has been going the opposite direction than Utah has: its homeless population has increased by 213 percent in the past three years,” writes Kerry Drake at Wyofile. “In 2012, the state managed to provide shelter for only 26 percent of the homeless, which was the lowest rate in the country. The next state on the list, at 35 percent, was California, where the climate is obviously much more conducive to sleeping outside than ours.”

The state is in the process of remodeling apartments in Casper to prepare for the first batch of selected applicants, and after that will allow roughly a dozen to launch the pilot program. For Utah, it will take about a decade to reduce the number of chronic homeless to zero. If Wyoming follows the same trajectory, it would be in the same place around 2025.

Could such a project be implemented in every state? If so, what could that do to change our entire culture when it comes to those in need? Imagine a country where state-subsidized hospital emergency rooms aren’t flooded with patients in part because of the physical and mental harms associated with living in a car or on the street? Where children would have permanent addresses to help them register for school? Where appling for a job is easier because you have a permanent address for potential employers to contact, a closet to hang clothing and an accessible shower before an interview?

For the Scrooges of the world, the idea of providing an apartment “no questions asked” is unfathomable. After all, this is a country where politicians believe elementary school children should have to sweep the cafeteria floor if they get a subsidized meal so they know there “is no such thing as a free lunch.” Too many honestly believe that it is better to spend more in resources keeping homeless on the streets until they have somehow “earned” a hand up.

We could end homelessness if we all agreed that it is in society’s best interest to do so. The problem is, too many people still don’t think that practicality and compassion should outweigh their conviction that the poor are poor simply because they have somehow failed morally.

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