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Shocking! Utah Reduced Homelessness by Giving People Homes.
A solution so crazy it just did work.
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According to World Population Review, Utah currently has 10.7 homeless individuals per 10k residents, putting it in the middle of the pack when ranking states by their rates of homelessness. (California has the most with 43.7, while Mississippi has the least with 4.1). While Utah’s ranking is not inherently impressive (many states have lower rates), what is notable about Utah is that it is significantly better than its neighbors. Take a look at the graphic showing state rates of homelessness below. All of Utah’s neighbor states have significantly higher rates. Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado have over 100 unhoused persons per 100k residents, Nevada has over 200, and California has over 400.
As the graphic shows, Utah appears to be the only state in its geographic region that has managed to keep its residents housed. And while Utah is known as a “rural" state, its low population does not explain its low homeless rates, as both Nevada and New Mexico have fewer residents and higher rates of homelessness. As homelessness is becoming a hot-button political issue for many states and cities, it’s important to ask what Utah has done to remain a positive outlier amongst its peers.
The answer to this question probably won’t surprise you.
A Housing-First Approach
Like many Western states, contemporary Utah has seen its population grow exponentially. In the quarter century from 2022 to 1997, the population of the Beehive State (I know, that surprised me, too) grew by over 63%. This rapid growth drove up the cost of living in Utah’s cities (predominantly Salt Lake), raising rents and leading to increased homelessness.
To solve this crisis, Utah came up with an idea so crazy, it just did work: they gave homeless people homes.
Back in 2005, the state adopted a “housing-first” approach to combatting homelessness. Instead of addressing the secondary ailments of unhoused Uhtans first, the housing-first approach prioritized finding people homes, then dealing with auxiliary issues common amongst the homeless, such as sobriety, mental and physical health problems, and unemployment. To do this, Utah did everything from subsidizing rent to constructing new living developments. Since its launch, the program has been incredibly successful. According to state auditors, 95% of people provided state-sponsored housing either remain permanently housed.
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If the “housing first” solution sounds painfully obvious, that’s because it is. Despite prevalent misconceptions that homelessness is driven by drug addiction, mental health issues, progressive policies, personal laziness, or the bizarre claim of nice weather, the reality is that homelessness is caused by high housing costs. As the Director of the Housing Rights Initiative Aaron Carr wrote, “If the primary problem of homelessness is housing, then the primary solution to homelessness is housing.”
As will come as no surprise, the prevalent reason the housing-first approach hasn’t been nationally adopted is the reactionary mindset plaguing American politics. Much like the notion that those on welfare are “moochers,” far too many see homeless people as lazy addicts who are “lazy bums,” that need to “get a job and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” This isn’t my assumption, but rather the verbatim words of Lloyd Pendleton, who, after hearing about the housing-first model at a conference, abandoned this mindset and went on to become the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, which brought the housing-first solution statewide. Ten years later, under the stewardship of the former doubter Pendleton, Utah’s homelessness had fallen by 91%.
Much like the other national and municipal governments that have instituted a housing-first approach (Houston reduced homelessness by 63%; Finland reduced it by 50%), Utah is not without its setbacks. COVID increased homelessness worldwide, and Utah was no exception. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time went up 14%. Utah has also yet to eradicate the problem of chronic homelessness, the term for those who live in perpetual homelessness, typically due to a debilitating health issue on top of their inability to afford rent.
Additionally, despite decades of success, Utah’s housing-first model is threatened by a return to archaic thinking. A 2021 state auditor’s report expressed concerns about the cost of the housing first model and suggested lawmakers pivot to “removing obstacles to self-sustainability,” which sounds a lot like reverting to the means-testing programs the predated Utah’s successful mode.
While Utah, like other nations, states, and cities, has not solved the crisis how homelessness, it has done a damn-fine job at reducing the prevalence of the problem. That reduction has undoubtedly saved lives and made Utah a more pleasant place. Not only should its housing-first approach be a model for other governments looking to solve homelessness (*cough*cough* Denver *cough*cough*), but it is a useful reminder that in many cases, the best solutions are the simplest.
It’s the Occam’s Razor of public policy: Give people healthcare and they won’t get sick. Provide high-paying jobs and they won’t be poor. Give people homeless people homes, and — shockingly — they no longer be homeless. Sometimes it really is that simple.
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What do you think about Utah’s approach to curtailing homelessness? Do you think it would work where you live? Share your thoughts in the comments below.