Amid the bitter cold of New Year’s Eve 2015, Donald Roberts searches on his cell phone for a photo of his nine-year-old daughter, Natasha, as he stands outside Palmer Court, a converted Holiday Inn now used to house chronically homeless individuals and families near downtown Salt Lake City. His goals for 2016 are to patch things up with the girl’s mother, get a new job, quit smoking, and bring his severely autistic daughter back home to his small apartment inside Palmer Court. “I’ve slept under bridges and everything,” Roberts says. “It’s not something I’d recommend.”
Roberts is one of hundreds of chronically homeless people in Utah no longer living on the streets, thanks to the state’s highly successful decade-old Housing First program, which involves many Utah faculty, alumni, and students. Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, NPR, NBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among many other media outlets, have all featured Utah’s Housing First initiative for its huge strides toward solving chronic homelessness in the state. This seems like a lot of attention when other housing programs in more populous areas were already under way. But consider the math. Utah has reduced the numbers of chronically homeless from about 2,000 ten years ago to less than 200 in 2015 and is on track to a very noteworthy zero as more housing units come online in the next few years.
“Chronically” homeless are defined as those who have lived on the streets consistently for a year or have had four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period. They also have a mental or physical disability and need for (though are not required to access) supportive services. And therein lies a key component of Housing First—the belief that the chronically homeless all deserve housing, regardless of circumstances in their lives that might otherwise prevent them from accessing permanent housing through other programs. The initiative essentially bypasses the long-prevailing idea of various “levels” to progress through. Instead, individuals go straight to stable housing and then work on addressing their other needs and issues, such as drug use or mental illness.
The theory, which research is proving true, is that by taking care of basic housing needs first, the impact of a homeless person on hospitals, jails, shelters, and other services is greatly reduced. The chronically homeless stay off the streets, and ultimately states save millions of dollars in the process. To be clear, no one with Housing First is getting a free ride. At Palmer Court and other places, the cost of housing varies. Clients can pay rent at a rate of 30 percent of their income or $25 per month, whichever is more and depending on which housing agency they use (in some cases it’s $50 per month). The rest of the cost is covered by federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds.
Matt Minkevitch BA’91 MBA’13 is director at The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, where the impact of Housing First is felt on a nightly basis. On a cold day in January, Minkevitch estimates that more than 1,100 people—200 of whom are children—will be sleeping in three shelters, including The Road Home. Add to that number more than 1,700 people—or the former chronically homeless in permanent housing at that time—and the shelters would be overrun. “There’s no way on this green earth we could handle all of that demand at three facilities without Housing First,” Minkevitch says.
Housing First was spearheaded in 2005 by Lloyd Pendleton, director of the State of Utah’s Homeless Task Force. He is the man behind the vision to functionally eliminate chronic homelessness across Utah within 10 years. A year into the initiative, Minkevitch got the opportunity to join forces with Claudia O’Grady with the Utah Housing Corporation and fellow alum Jonathan Hardy BS’02, then director of the Utah State Community Services Office, and others to negotiate acquisition of the Holiday Inn at 999 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City. The old hotel was purchased and renovated for about $21 million in public and private funds to create 201 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. But, as Minkevitch points out, there’s more to the success of the program than just getting people off the streets.
Minkevitch credits two of his U professors, Mark Strand and Phillip Edward Sullivan (both of whom died in 2014), for teaching him how to listen and create a safe environment for people to speak their minds. These lessons have served him well while working with the homeless at St. Vincent de Paul and now The Road Home. “ ‘I’m worth listening to. I’m important. I’m not just trying to get something from you. There was a time I was somebody.’ These are recurring themes in countless conversations I’ve had with people,” he says. “There’s a beautiful thing going on here. It’s a conversation and a dance, and this is where I listen. In the course of listening, they know it’s safe to talk to me—about using drugs, alcohol, etc.” One of the beauties of Housing First, he says, is that people can be who they are and know that they’re welcome here. Treating people with compassion, respect, and a sense of empathy are elements common among those on the front lines battling chronic homelessness.
While the numbers are proof Housing First is working, it’s people like Michelle Tschetter and Makyla Ordonez who embody the more empathic, compassionate elements of why “permanent supportive housing” works in Utah. Ordonez is a 23-year-old U student working toward her master’s degree in social work. An intern at The Road Home, she says her passion for social work developed while going to Catholic schools and using social services, to help her cope first with her parents’ divorce and then, a few years later, with the death of her stepfather. “I think it’s just having that do-good attitude,” Ordonez says. “I’ve had a lot of help, and I’m ready to give back.” Ordonez has worked with many families and gets a little emotional thinking about a particular single mother, a construction worker who had never been homeless. “Initially, she seemed very determined but scared,” Ordonez recalls. “She would call me multiple times a day just to talk to me.” Finally, after moving out of the shelter, she called Ordonez to say, “I can’t wait to show you my new house.”
As director of services at The Road Home, Tschetter works with interns like Ordonez every year and says she has watched Ordonez “blossom” while learning the ropes. “We’ve been really lucky to get some great students from the U,” Tschetter says. “They’re bright, curious, open to new experiences, and passionate about social work.”
Tschetter, too, believes Housing First is working. “It’s a smart thing to do—it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “Everyone deserves a stable place to live.” Like most people involved with helping the homeless, Tschetter has memories of clients who desperately needed help or who seemed hopeless. One, she recalls, was a prostitute who was also a drug addict and in and out of jail, but she eventually cleaned up her life, got into housing, and now works with other agencies for ongoing issues. “Sometimes as a social worker, you don’t feel like you make a difference,” Tschetter admits. “But we care about our people. I think about her. I ask about her. You don’t just turn that off because they’re working with someone else.”
Tschetter oversees Ordonez, who is patient, methodical, and soothing while talking to another female shelter resident on a typical day as a case manager at The Road Home. They talk about goals and plans, how Ordonez can help, and then she heads to the on-site food pantry to secure a few items for her client.
Some of the clients Ordonez helps end up at Palmer Court, where her classmate Samantha Pehrson, also an intern from the U’s social work program, and her team take over.
Born and raised in Provo, Utah, Pehrson recalls that she rarely saw homeless people growing up and didn’t need social services for herself. She says that, like a lot of people, she used to think most homeless people were just lazy drug addicts who preferred handouts. She didn’t consider the trauma in people’s lives or the intergenerational poverty that can lead to a cycle of homelessness. “My perceptions have changed drastically as I have learned more about the flaws in our community when it comes to assisting people with housing,” Pehrson says. “It kind of made me frustrated at first—we don’t provide enough services.” In the classroom at the U, she’s taught to imagine herself in the shoes of a homeless person, and at Palmer Court she sees it firsthand. “How would I feel if I didn’t have a place to sleep every night or money for food or my family?” she says. “I’ve definitely developed more compassion working at Palmer Court.”
Pehrson benefits from working alongside Kelli Bowers BS’92 MSW’99, director of support services at Palmer Court; Cerise Nord MSW’12, a case manager; and Alesia Wilson MSW’99, clinical director of housing. Wilson, like Minkevitch, has an answer for naysayers who believe so-called “handouts” are enabling certain behaviors or that Housing First will attract more homeless to Utah. She points to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wherein homeless people, like anyone else, need to satisfy their physical requirements and feel a sense of well-being and safety before they can move on to areas of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. “You can’t find fulfillment in life if you’re camping by a river and can’t find warm clothes,” Wilson says. “And when I explain that it’s fiscally responsible for taxpayers to support Housing First, people are extremely receptive.”
Bowers grew up poor in Chicago and pursued social work as a career after receiving “life-changing” help for depression. She recently turned over organizing a biannual resources fair to Pehrson, who ran with the task of gathering agencies in one place at Palmer Court to help residents with employment, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and more. “If you expect people to be clean and sober, on their medications, and have their medical situations taken care of, you’re really setting them up for failure to get into housing,” Bowers says. “Permanent supportive housing gives them wraparound services to overcome barriers. It works. Sometimes it takes a long time to work. But we don’t kick people out just because they don’t use their medications or because they use drugs.”
In 2011, The Road Home used a grant for its Homeless Services and Housing project, which was tied to Housing First. U Senior Research Analyst Christian Marie Sarver MSW’10 was on the team that evaluated that project over a three-year period, producing a final report in September 2014. One “remarkable” finding was that incidents involving mental health or substance abuse issues that would typically have landed clients using permanent supportive housing back on the street instead did not result in evictions. Sarver points out that, in fact, 77 percent of people placed during the project period remained in housing. “This is a very labor-intensive service thing,” she says. The report also notes that 22 percent of the housed clients did so well in the program that they were successfully discharged, while still housed, to a lower level of case management.
At Palmer Court, Nord is one of several case managers handling more than 40 clients (it’s recommended each handle about 12 to 15). Nord grew up in a small town in Alaska, sometimes seeing homeless people in Anchorage. “I was always curious about why that is even happening,” Nord recalls. She has been with The Road Home for nine years and at Palmer Court (which it manages) since 2009. “The advantage of Housing First is that I get to build a relationship with people,” she says. “If you have to define my job, it’s first to build a relationship of trust. ‘Your value to me is not your sobriety or mental health. Housing is a right. You deserve this’ is the message I try to convey.”
Supportive services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling or employment assistance isn’t mandated to qualify for placement with Housing First. But clients at places like Palmer Court, Grace Gary Manor in South Salt Lake, and Kelly Benson Apartments in West Valley City at least have access to those services.
On January 11, Donald Roberts and his ex-wife were sitting in the lobby of Palmer Court, surveying the services offered during the resources fair Pehrson organized.
Roberts, now 48, was a “hyperactive” child, put on Ritalin and in special education classes. He recalls graduating from high school, joining the Navy, receiving an honorable discharge for his arthritis, and eventually working for a carnival in Arizona for six years. He got married and divorced, had a child in that time, lived in a shelter in Las Vegas, found his way to Salt Lake City, had an apartment but then lost it, and ended up relying on The Road Home to house him and his daughter. Roberts also battles depression and says he has twice tried to end his own life.
But over the past three years, he has been living at Palmer Court, paying $50 per month rent for a two-bedroom apartment. He has held a job on site, has sought help for his depression, and is working with an agency to learn how to deal with his autistic daughter while getting her help at a separate facility. He finds a photo on his phone of the two of them. “She knows me—she’s been asking for me left and right,” he says. “She’s my number-one priority. There’s no one more important than her.”
—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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