Tale of two states: Utah's a model for reducing homelessness, Wyoming lags behind

 

What happens when you give a homeless person a subsidized apartment? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. But in Utah, it’s proven a resounding success – out of 17 chronically homeless people who took part in the state’s 2005 pilot program, all were still off the streets two years later, spurring a long-term “Housing First” initiative that’s reduced Utah’s homeless population by 74 percent while saving the state millions of dollars.

Lloyd Pendleton, Director of the Utah Homeless Task Force, remembers one woman who took part in the pilot program. She’d been on and off the streets for over a decade, but after she was given a place of her own in Salt Lake City, still chose to sleep outside next to a dumpster. Eventually, she started crashing on the floor of the apartment. And after a while, she began sleeping in the bed. Today, she lives near her family, 70 years old, sober and happy.

Had she lived just across the border in Wyoming, her story might have ended very differently. Though its rate of homelessness isn’t particularly high, Wyoming falls dead last in the nation for sheltering its homeless, with only 26 percent receiving shelter, compared to 61 percent nationally. Plus, Wyoming’s homeless population has been on the rise: According to official data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s more than doubled over the last three years, though Mary Randolph of the Wyoming Rural Development Council says it’s hard to know what the exact numbers are because the state’s record-keeping has been so inconsistent.

Still, she adds, the homeless population has indeed increased: “When the economy tanked, people heard there were (oil and gas) jobs in Wyoming and flooded out here. There weren’t jobs, and weren’t homes either, so a lot of people ended up on the streets.”

It wasn’t until last year that Wyoming officials fully realized that the state’s plan for addressing homelessness lagged so far behind neighboring states’. “We weren’t getting the funding from HUD that we were eligible to get. We didn’t have an organized continuum of care like most other states, and there was (no one) overseeing homeless programs,” says Brenda Lyttle, a senior administrator in the Department of Family Services who now coordinates the state’s homeless services.

Under Lyttle’s direction, Wyoming is taking action. It hopes to have a 10-year plan in place by Sept. 2014, modeled after the plan that Utah created a decade ago. “Housing First” is already being piloted in Casper, Wyo., and Lyttle is keen to put it in place statewide. “Housing First really caught our eye, especially because it's being done successfully in another Western state,” she says.

The idea is simple. In Utah, the average chronically homeless person (someone with a disability who has been continuously homeless for at least a year or four times in the last three years) cost taxpayers $20,000 annually in emergency room visits and law enforcement. In contrast, providing an apartment at 30 percent of a person’s income, if they have one, and a year’s worth of appointments with a social worker cost just $7,800.

Utah's plan included the latter combination, which has proven a success both socially and financially. Over the last decade, Utah has built, leased or renovated more than 900 apartments for the homeless in Salt Lake, Ogden and St. George. It may be the only state in the nation on track to meet its goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015, Pendleton says.

But Housing First proponents in Wyoming worry that the state’s cowboy character may hinder their efforts. “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,” writes Kerry Drake in a recent op-ed for Wyofile.

Pendleton, the man behind Utah’s success, says that coming from a hard-working ranching family, even he was resistant to the idea at first.  “But as I got into this, I realized that a high percentage (of homeless people) have been abused as children,” he says. “Many don’t have boots. They can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Another issue in Wyoming, says Lyttle, is that unlike the homeless who live on the streets of the urban Wasatch Front in Utah, Wyoming’s rural homeless are largely invisible, living out of cars or shuttling between friends’ houses to escape the weather. “You don’t see folks sleeping downtown on the street. It’s cold, and there’s not a community of support. … We have a lot of folks who just don’t believe that there is a homeless population in Wyoming.”

Together, Lyttle and Pendleton are out to address homelessness head-on, starting by collecting better data on Wyoming’s homeless in an official count later this month.  “Wyoming is just now starting to take a serious look at what they can do,” Pendleton says. “I think it’ll be a great experience for them.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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