Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness By 91 Percent; Here’s How

December 10, 2015 6:08 PM ET
Heard on All Things Considered
by Kelly McEvers

photo by Cayce Clifford for NPR

A decade ago, Utah set itself an ambitious goal: end chronic homelessness.

As of 2015, the state can just about declare victory: The population of chronically homeless people has dropped by 91 percent.

The state's success story has generated headlines around the country, and even The Daily Show With Jon Stewart looked to Utah to understand how the state achieved its goal.

In fact, Utah still has a substantial homeless problem. The overall homeless population is around 14,000.

The chronically homeless, on the other hand, are a subset of the homeless population that is often the most vulnerable. These are people who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a "disabling condition" that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that represents about 20 percent of the national homeless population.

By implementing a model known as Housing First, Utah has reduced that number from nearly 2,000 people in 2005, to fewer than 200 now.

'I'm Gonna Lay In The Bathtub For About A Week'

Kim Evans is one of those few who remains chronically homeless, and his life is about to change.

Right now he lives outside Salt Lake City, in the woods next to a highway.

Amanda Lee and Sanela Piragic, outreach workers from the nonprofit Volunteers of America, regularly visit him at his encampment.

Evans has cleared out a lot of the trees there. He says he likes to think of this place as his own park. He is 54 years old, but looks a lot older.

He has a tent with a fence around it made of wood, piles of tarp and grocery carts full of stuff he collects. He wears a good new winter coat, which was donated. He says he's been living outside for five years.

"Too long," says Amanda Lee, one of the outreach workers.

Evans agrees.

He has a bad back injury and has struggled with drugs and alcohol. When he talks, he's a little hard to understand. He said he's had a stroke and is missing some teeth.

But any day now, he's about to get his own apartment, mostly paid for by the federal government. He says he doesn't want to spend another winter in the woods.

"Now that the trees are thinner, it's even colder," Evans says. "I'm gonna lay in the bathtub for about a week."

Under a previous anti-homelessness model, Kim Evans would've had to prove he was sober and drug-free before he could get housing and take that warm bath. Or he might have just stayed homeless.

Under Utah's Housing First approach, he'll get housed with few questions asked.

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