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The Shockingly Complicated Fight Against Homelessness in the Mountain West

It's everybody's issue.

Homelessness Salt Lake City Utah

By Tracy Ross | Photographs by Sandra Salvas

You have to be pretty hungry to walk “The Block” on the corner of Rio Grande and 200 West Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, and kneel to grab an empty bag of potato chips to lick the salt and oil off the liner. Then again, you must be hungry if you are hanging out here, in early afternoon, on a bluebird day last April. Up in the mountains, skiers are getting their last hurrahs in snow that feels like Slurpee. Down in Salt Lake, those with jobs toil away in not-yet-air-conditioned offices. But here on The Block, a hundred or so homeless men and women squat in the shade. The scene is heart-wrenching, depressing, and menacing. The homeless have come for food at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and a bed at The Road Home homeless shelter. The curious thing, though, given all the homeless lingering about, is that the State of Utah recently declared victory over homelessness.

Or at least that’s how most of the media reported it. The headlines varied from The Shockingly Simple, Surprisingly Cost Effective Way to End Homelessness to Salt Lake City a Model for [San Francisco] on Homeless Solutions. Even Lloyd Pendleton, the charismatic director of the State of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj, “We [solved homelessness] by giving the homeless people homes.” In Salt Lake, the claim went public before many of the agencies working with homeless were briefed.

Utah did succeed in housing a good percentage of its chronically homeless population, for which they should be lauded. But the chronic homeless account for just 10 percent of the overall homeless population here. “All of these people were like, ‘Yay! You ended homelessness,’” says Jeniece Olsen, director of supportive housing services at The Road Home. “But we still have a huge problem.”

In Utah, and in the U.S. at large, the homeless crisis is still quite real. In January 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted 564,708 people nationwide sleeping outside, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing. The study found that homelessness had decreased in 33 states, but rose in 16. One might expect large homeless populations in big expensive cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. But the homeless crisis is also hitting mountain towns like Boulder, Billings, Eugene, and Boise.

It’s easy to say, “Build more houses and fix the problem,” but no one thing caused the crisis, and no one thing can fix it. Still, smaller mountain communities can learn from the big cities with big issues. 

So far, Salt Lake City has had better success than most. Between public funds and the efforts of the Mormon Church, 91 percent of Utah’s chronically homeless now inhabit permanent housing. But homelessness still pervades Salt Lake City. On the same day I watched a woman in stocking feet peer into the empty chip bag, several schoolchildren stepped off their bus in front of The Road Home. They had to walk a gauntlet of homelessness to safety. “They see people using and dealing drugs, things children shouldn’t see,” says Celeste Eggert, The Road Home’s director of development and community relations. In mid-September, four people were stabbed  nearby after a botched drug deal.


One hundred years ago, if you were a homeless drifter in the West, you’d have a couple of options: Trade labor for housing, or get driven out of town on the train. By the 1930s, though, the Great Depression had shed millions from their homes. In 1933, one quarter of American workers were jobless. With loss of income came lost homes, yet Herbert Hoover, touting self-reliance, refused government intervention. By mid-decade, millions of Americans were living in shanty villages, dubbed Hoovervilles. Finally, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, he created the New Deal to fund jobs, social security, and affordable housing programs. From 1934 through the mid-1960s, the government worked to provide “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family,” including some 300,000 low-rent, federally subsidized units. Homelessness in the U.S. dropped.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rising capitalism and urban renewal led local governments and businesses to demolish much of the FDR-legacy cheap housing stock. Then Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both had hands in dismantling the New Deal, and with it, federal funding of affordable housing. HUD’s annual funding dropped from $16 billion to below $2 billion during that period. In the years since, mass homelessness reemerged. Today, affordable housing is scarcer than ever, says Megan Hustings, interim director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Plus, the economic downturn that the country experienced in 2008 is still in effect for the low income,” she says. 

A lack of housing may be the biggest contributor to the homeless crisis, but the modern homeless population isn’t as homogenous as the Depression-era masses. It includes the underserved mentally ill, the substance-addicted, PTSD-affected veterans, battered women, working-poor families, and, in some cases, the homeless by choice. The latest HUD count revealed that 63 percent were individuals, 37 percent were families, and 15 percent were chronically homeless, while 8 percent were veterans, 2 percent were chronically homeless families, and 6.5 percent (36,907 people) were unaccompanied minors.

Unless we’re willing to let them die of exposure or shelter them in hospital emergency rooms, band shells, and public libraries, they all need housing. But the U.S. Conference of Mayors has reported for years that the number of requests for emergency shelter beds far outweighs actual beds available. It’s also true that different demographics have different needs. Hustings says that due to prioritization of certain groups, “We don’t have a system to help everyone.”

In the 1990s, the Interagency Council on Homelessness started promoting 10-year plans to end homelessness. By 2000, hundreds of cities had taken up the quest. They began by prioritizing populations. The chronically homeless and vets topped the list and families were next. With limited federal help, several states have chipped away at housing the first two groups, but housing families has proven difficult. Rising wealth inequality has led to another wave of homelessness as cheaper neighborhoods get gentrified and trailer parks bulldozed. At the same time, government at every level has cut back on already-inadequate housing assistance for low-income people. As the homeless problem intensifies, cities are scrambling to find solutions.


Salt Lake City attacked its chronic homelessness crisis with a program called Housing First. Get a chronically homeless person into a permanent home, the theory goes, and with some counseling, she can address the underlying causes of her homelessness (such as addiction). The city launched the program in 2005—when the Bush Administration made its call to end homelessness. Salt Lake determined that while the chronically homeless comprised less than 10 percent of the city’s homeless population, they consumed about 80 percent of services. A chronically homeless person is defined as someone who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. Officials found that for every chronically homeless person housed, there was an estimated $8,000 net cost services savings. Using state and federal funding, in 2009 Salt Lake renovated an old Holiday Inn, creating 201 permanent homes for the chronically homeless. That program has been a success, but for families and individuals who don’t meet the chronically homeless definition, another program, called Rapid Rehousing, works better. Rapid Rehousing began in 2009, when Congress enacted the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, which gave communities incentives to provide long-term housing to homeless individuals and families. It’s based on the idea that certain people will avoid chronic homelessness if they receive quick—and temporarily subsidized—housing. For many, that short-term boost is all they need to stabilize. Rapid Rehousing has proven itself cost-effective. It also reduces shelter capacity and adult homelessness. But here too, a lack of affordable housing stock—a product of the economic recovery—stymies rehousing. Salt Lake County was 8,000 units short of meeting its affordable housing needs in 2015. Advocates work hard to recruit landlords open to Rapid Rehousing applicants, but Olsen says since half of all Salt Lake renters spend 50 percent of their income for housing, there just aren’t enough affordable units out there. Many people are living close to the edge: “Half the population is extremely vulnerable to becoming homeless,” says Olsen. 

In places like L.A., Portland, and Seattle, the homeless populations far exceed shelter capacity. That puts them on the streets, or in tent encampments, which are notoriously crime-ridden and filthy. In a survey of 187 cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness found a 50 percent increase in those with municipal bans on camping since 2011, including Denver, Boise, and Boulder. Homeless advocates have fought back, calling the action the “criminalization of homelessness.”

Other cities have taken a different approach. In Seattle, homelessness is so rampant that in January of 2015 its mayor declared a state of emergency. By then, Seattle’s homeless population had skyrocketed to 10,047, with 3,772 completely unsheltered. Many lived in sprawling tent cities, including a notoriously dangerous tract called The Jungle. With no other options, the mayor opened five city-sanctioned homeless encampments. The move received pushback from nearby residential neighborhoods, but the camps are at least an improvement over the non-sanctioned camps. In the sanctioned camps, the homeless are connected with services. The hope is that it might lead to getting some permanently housed.

There’s a cost—financial, social, spiritual—in contending with large groups of transients. With scarce services, they linger in downtowns, city parks, public buildings. Some small cities are overrun, while others seem immune. But just because a Fort Collins, Colorado, has a homelessness crisis while a Santa Fe, New Mexico, may not, it doesn’t mean that solving homelessness should fall entirely on the hardest hit towns. As with the fallout from the Great Depression, homelessness is a national problem that needs more attention from the federal government. Still, as the cost of housing increases, federal funds for affordable housing have stagnated for years. It’s the most challenged cities that are left shouldering the burden, or trying to. “By some estimates, 75 percent of shelter is not funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” says Hustings of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In Salt Lake, that’s beginning to change. In March of this year, lawmakers appropriated $9.25 million in state and federal funds for the Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative, the first installment of a proposed $27 million, three-year plan. The money will go toward two new homelessness resource centers to house a variety of services including 250 emergency shelter beds.

Again, it seems like an easy fix, but the move leaves officials at The Road Home asking why the city would build more temporary shelter when those funds could go to affordable housing. “We house more than 1,000 people a night and during winter there’s overflow,” says Olsen. “If we had that money we could potentially give more people permanent housing. [The shelters] will relieve some of our burden, but I question whether it’s the best choice.”

But portions of the $27 million have also directly altered the lives of those first and second graders at The Road Home. There’s a brighter, cleaner, and safer family shelter 12 miles from Salt Lake City, called Midvale Center. Before last year, it was only open in the winter. Now, thanks to that extra money, it stays open year round. “We’re really trying, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, all of our other stakeholders, not just to provide more [shelters], but to change the system,” says David Litvack, former Democratic Minority Leader for the Utah House of Representatives who now serves as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Salt Lake City. “But we still have too many people sleeping on the streets. Is that a state issue? A federal issue? It’s everyone’s issue.”

From the Early Winter 2016 issue.

2 Responses to “The Shockingly Complicated Fight Against Homelessness in the Mountain West”

  1. Tony H

    As supposedly the only super power nation we should be ashamed of ourselves. Every city needs affordable housing. Every new Apartment complex being bullt are luxury apartments with rents starting at $1000 and above. I work for one of the biggest tech companies on Earth and I struggle to pay the rent. There needs to be laws that mandate that afordable housing has to have priority over these McMansion type apartment complexes. For example there used to be a Navy base in Long Beach CA. The empty housing units sat empty for years. The Navy sold the land to a high end developer a few of the old base housing is being used for homeless veterans. If the Base housing had been used as affordable housing it would probably be hundreds or even close to thousands of people with a roof over their heads.


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