Ten years ago, Salt Lake City and San Francisco launched campaigns to end homelessness. Salt Lake spent $20 million, and San Francisco spent $165 million, but today Salt Lake's chronic homeless population has all but disappeared, while San Francisco still struggles. What did Salt Lake get right?
According to a report from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of Salt Lake's best solutions was clean, bright housing that people on the street actually wanted to go to — and that was removed from the downtown drinking and drugs scene.
"What we've done is doable everywhere," Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's homeless initiatives, told the Chronicle. "It's not rocket science. Homeless people need housing. Give it to them. And give them counseling."
Of course San Francisco and Salt Lake have different problems — San Francisco's real estate prices are more than double Salt Lake's, and San Francisco is home to a bigger homeless population. Plus, Salt Lake's plan got a boost from an additional $20 million from nonprofit groups and the Mormon Church.
Still, modern, landscaped housing like Salt Lake's Grace Mary Manor, which has around-the-clock staffing, plus counseling and substance addiction programs, have reduced the city's chronic homeless population to 400, while San Francisco's remains at about 2,000.
This kind of programming saves money in the long run — the Chronicle reports that in 2004, the city estimated that each chronically homeless person cost the city $61,000, compared to $16,000 to put that person in supportive housing.
Other cities have also found that housing the homeless — as over-simple and potentially expensive as that solution sounds — saves taxpayer dollars. In May, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person due to the salaries of law enforcement officers for arrests and transport of the homeless, mostly for petty offenses like intoxication or sleeping in public parks, plus jail time and E.R. visits for medical and psychiatric services.
Providing each person housing and a caseworker would only cost $10,000, the report estimated. Other cities like Denver and Minneapolis have also had success with similar programs.
The "housing first" approach was started by George W. Bush's housing czar, and has reduced chronic homelessness nationwide by about 30 percent between 2005 and 2007, according to the Atlantic, and continued to decrease by 17 percent through 2012. This has also happened during a time when unemployment has doubled and foreclosures have quadrupled.
Bevan Dufty, the mayor's chief of homelessness policy in San Francisco, told the Chronicle that Salt Lake's case managers and supportive housing were "just what San Francisco needs," but it's hard to find the funding in the short term.
"Look, we're going to spend the money one way or another — either through expensive jail, shelter, emergency calls and so forth, or by investing in housing," said Dufty. It's so clear what the best way to spend it is. With housing you not only give people better lives, you save money in the long run."