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State can give homeless a place to live, and save money

Modified: Thursday, Dec 5th, 2013

Wyoming is nearly a decade behind its neighbor Utah in doing something to end its chronic homelessness problem, but it’s never too late to start. There are many people to help and a lot of public money to be saved, in a humanitarian way.

In 2005, Utah set out to do something very different than the typical strategy of getting the hard-core homeless off drugs and alcohol, and making them jump through enough bureaucratic hoops to obtain some state assistance and finally get what they need most: permanent housing.

Utah started a pilot program that took 17 people in Salt Lake City who had spent an average of 25 years on the street and put them in apartments. Caseworkers were assigned to help them become self-sufficient, but there were no strings attached – if they failed, the participants still had a place to live.

The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

Pendleton, who previously worked for Ford Motors and the Mormon Church, is trying to help Wyoming start its own Housing First program. He recently made his fifth visit to Casper, where he addressed the Mayor’s Prayer Luncheon, which focused on the city’s homeless problem.

Wyoming has been going the opposite direction than Utah has: its homeless population has increased by 213 percent in the past three years. 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.

Utah’s model has been duplicated in other states and communities throughout the country, with excellent results. It has the support of several city officials in Casper, including City Manager John Patterson, who held the same position in Ogden and worked closely with Pendleton to begin a Housing First program there.

Casper plans to use 10-14 units in the recently acquired 50-unit Star Apartments downtown as its pilot project. It won’t begin anytime soon, because asbestos still needs to be removed from the building, but once the complex is remodeled, applicants will be selected along with case managers assigned to help them.

It’s a great model, and the program makes perfect sense — people who have been living on the streets, in their cars and under bridges aren’t equipped to negotiate the maze of red tape required to get help from state and nonprofit agencies without assistance. Now, they tend to get a little help at a time — a few weeks at a rescue mission, or a voucher to spend a week at a local motel — which isn’t enough to keep them out of the harsh weather all winter.

If they get sick, which is likely, they go to the emergency room, where their tab is eventually picked up by the hospital’s charity care, which is subsidized through higher rates for paying patients. A simple infection can turn into a $100,000 medical bill, and when homeless patients are released back on the street, it’s easy to get sick again and return to the ER.

There’s no question that providing housing for the homeless is the right thing to do, for humanitarian reasons. But it also makes economic sense, so cities can spend less money and still help more people. In 2005, Utah did a study that found the average annual cost for emergency services and jail time for each chronically homeless person was $16,670. The cost to house them and provide case management services was only $11,000 per person.

My biggest fear is that some residents of conservative, red state Wyoming, where people are traditionally expected to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, will mistakenly look at Housing First as another type of welfare program and not give it a chance to succeed. Pendleton said he knows that it’s easy to generalize about the entire homeless population and consider people lazy, because that’s exactly how he used to feel.

“I grew up on a ranch, where you learn to work hard,” Pendleton recounted. “I used to tell the homeless to get a job, because that’s all I thought they needed.”

It wasn’t until he began actively working with the homeless that he realized, “These are my brothers and sisters. When they’re hurting, we’re hurting as a community. We’re all connected.”

It gives me hope that the person most responsible for turning the situation around in Utah said he had to undergo a “major paradigm shift” to see that the chronically homeless needed much more than his advice to get a job. Another positive sign is that several Utah communities that have resisted Housing First and considered it controversial are starting to come on board with its philosophy.

“It’s our eighth year, but they are finally starting to come together to support Housing First,” Pendleton said.

There’s no reason to believe that Wyoming can’t achieve the same level of success as Utah has had. Our two largest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, both have core groups of homeless that number in the dozens who have been living on the streets for many years, and are back each winter if they don’t freeze to death. There may be less chronically homeless in smaller cities, but they still exist, and Housing First can work for them, too. As Pendleton noted, all it takes in each community are some key city officials to provide support and other members of the community to champion the cause.

I don’t care whether people support the program because it’s the right thing to do, or because they realize it saves them money in the long run. Whatever their motivation, people need to explore innovative solutions for Wyoming’s increasing homeless population, and not keep doing the same things over and over.

Despite the best intentions of government officials, social workers and nonprofit organizations to create a system in Wyoming where the homeless can get some help if they manage to stick around and fill out the right paperwork, the numbers show that it just isn’t working. If we first provide shelter to those who desperately need it, with no strings attached, people then have a fighting chance to battle whatever problems led them to live in the streets in the first place.

By giving them a roof over their heads instead of a hospital bed or jail cell, Wyoming communities can show that they are both compassionate and good stewards of public funds.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.

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