Homelessness is certainly not a new issue, but efforts to solve the problem continue to confound federal and state governments. According to 2008 statistics compiled by the Grand County Homeless Coordinating Committee (GHCC) using a variety of state and federal sources, 3.5 million Americans, – 1 percent of the population – will experience homelessness each year.
In Utah, 3,000 people are chronically homeless and 14,000 individuals will experience some form of homelessness throughout the year, according to the GHCC data. Ninety percent of Utah’s homeless live along the Wasatch Front, but Grand County holds the distinction of having the highest number of homeless people per capita – 1.81 percent, compared to 1.2 percent in San Juan County and .91 percent in Salt Lake City.
“The issue is that the state tends to put the money where the people are,” GHCC chairwoman, Audrey Graham said. “They are looking at approximately 16 to 20 homeless in Moab compared to around 600 in Salt Lake [City]. Unfortunately, this has caused most of the money to get pulled from our area.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development separates homelessness into two categories – temporary (episodic) and chronic.
“The episodic homeless… may lose their job or home and end up on the street. These are often families but can be individuals, too,” said Graham. “They mostly make use of temporary shelters… until they get back on their feet.”
The chronic homeless are individuals living on the street for more than a year or who experienced four episodes of homelessness in the last three years. The number of chronic homeless is estimated to be 12 percent of the homeless population but consume more than half of the resources that support this community, according to the 2008 study.
Grand County Sheriff Steve White said the resources dedicated to jailing the homeless are not huge, but every person jailed impacts the system. It costs Grand County approximately $58 per night to jail one person, White said.
White said his department is working with the GHCC to raise awareness among his staff and the community and to get the homeless the help they need.
“We want to work with the taskforce to be better educated and to help us make better decisions. The problems are so diverse in that community, it’s hard to lump it all into one solution,” White said.
Often, the sheriff’s department works with Four Corners Community Behavioral Health to find help for arrestees that may be mentally ill. Yet, according to White, many homeless people who are arrested are abusing alcohol and other substances.
“Somebody will find someone passed out. In that state, it becomes a public safety issue,” White said. “They could pose a danger to themselves or others, and sometimes drunkenness can lead to fighting in the streets.”
Utah sees substance abuse as one of the causes of chronic homelessness, along with extreme poverty, lack of education, or other health concerns. The burden on individuals created by these issues, prompted the state to organize “Housing First,” – in response to a challenge by the National Alliance to End Homelessness – with the goal of ending chronic homelessness within 10 years.
Graham said the state homeless coordinating committee urged counties to form local committees to work with agencies already receiving federal and state money in an effort to more effectively help homeless people find shelters.
Temporary homeless shelters were deemed less effective than other solutions, Graham said, prompting the implementation of Housing First. In traditional programs, a person typically must complete complex paperwork to receive a housing voucher and must be free of substance and chemical abuse.
“When you get involved with federal and state programs… you have so many protections in place… it often makes people who genuinely need help jump through hoops to continue to get aid,” said Graham. “The Housing First model, instead of saying, ‘if you can get clean and sober and get a job, we will give you a house,’ says, ‘we will give you a house first, and if you can be a good neighbor and renter, we will pay to keep you in the house.’”
People placed in Housing First homes may still consume alcohol, but they cannot abuse drugs or have parties. Efforts by the state homeless committee led to the construction of 600 Housing First units in Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front.
“What they found was that many of the chronic homeless, when they had a home, were not drinking as much and that drinking was often being used as self-medication for underlying health issues,” Graham said. “Once they got to the root of the problem, the person didn’t need to cover the pain as much. They were still addicted but could start spiraling upward rather than down.”
Grand County’s local committee, established in 2006 and composed of individuals, members from law enforcement, faith-based organizations, workforce services, and elected officials, hoped to create permanent set-asides for the homeless in new housing developments, but the funding was never available, Graham said. There is currently no temporary shelter in Grand County.
Until 2010, Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center received federal funding for a homeless assistance program, according to Seekhaven executive director Jaylyn Hawks. Seekhaven offered the only shelter services available in southeastern Utah, and the funding loss was a blow to the region, Hawks said. The shelter was serving approximately 20 people on a regular basis, she said.
The GHCC received a community development grant for $38,000 in 2009 for a pilot project to get people off of the streets. With that funding, the group subsidized rent for families waiting to receive federal housing vouchers. Seven families received the help, but the funding dried up, and the GHCC currently receives no money from the state, Graham said.
“What we are being told from everyone down the state and federal line is… they want permanent housing. But with land costs the way they are in Moab, that is a hard one,” said Graham. “Episodic homelessness is never going to end, which is why the focus is on the chronic homeless. It’s expensive to continue using community services to give someone a warm bed. We are working to come up with Grand County’s answer to ending homelessness as a community.”
Next week, part 2 of this series will focus on the efforts of some local citizens and organizations to help improve the lives of Grand County’s homeless residents.