A Place to Call Home: Part One

For most people who use Maine’s shelters, homelessness is temporary.

But there are others who need more support– the chronically homeless.

A decade ago, the State of Utah made a commitment to eliminate chronic homelessness. And what’s being done there is inspiring people here in Maine and across the country.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R-Utah) said “We haven’t solved homelessness, but chronic homelessness, I think we’ve come as close as anyone out there right now.”

It is a bold claim, but one that springs from a simple concept: create permanent housing for people stuck on the streets, who are in and out of shelters. Jails and emergency rooms.

The chronically homeless are people who have a disabling condition and have been continuously homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

They suffer from mental illness, addictions and substance abuse problems.

And while they are a small part of the homeless population– 15 to 20 percent– they use the most resources.

Mark Swann of Preble Street in Portland said, “It’s the 80/20 rule as it plays out in homelessness as it does in so many other things, where there’s 15 or 20% of the population that uses up 80% of the services.’

Ten years ago, people in Utah decided to attack this problem in a new way.

The goal was to eliminate chronic homelessness by the end of 2015, a goal they have met using the concept of “Housing First.”
Lloyd Pendleton was the man chosen to spearhead the plan. He said “Housing First is you take a person right off the street who’s been there 20 years, alcoholic, mental illness, drug use and you put them into housing first. And then you wrap services around them. And that’s different than what used to be called ‘housing ready.’ They had to be clean dry and sober before you get housing.”

First, the built a so-called ‘scattered site’ pilot project, placing 17 people with individual landlords. Pendleton said “If we’re going to do a pilot, we’re going to take the most challenging, difficult chronically homeless people we can find, and put them in scattered sites, before we build these hundred units.
And if we can house them, we can house anybody.”

When that pilot project succeeded, Sunrise Metro was built, 100 apartments near shelters and other services, away from residential areas.

Vietnam veteran Tom Lutz lives in sunrise Metro. He said it gave him more than a roof over his head and a chance to tackle his substance abuse problems– it gave him purpose.

Lutz said “It helped me a lot. I started doing stuff, getting involved with programs here. I’m the president of the resident Council. I’m also the supervisor of the janitors here.’

In a red state such as Utah, they had to overcome some skepticism. Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said it involved dispelling some myths. “I think you have to overcome this conception that we are just giving stuff away, and that we’re not holding people responsible, and that it would actually compound the problem. I think that was one of the things we were up against.”

Cox is the head of Utah’s Homeless Coordinating Committee, demonstrating the support this initiative has at the State House.
He said they won over the skeptics with a lot of data.
“It costs about $20,000 a year in taxpayer funds for various entities for a chronically homeless person. and when you can get them into housing for $10,000 or less a year, those numbers are pretty clear you could save $10,000 per chronically homeless person by getting them into a permanent housing.”

The money comes from a variety of sources, including federal Housing and Urban Development grants, state money, low-income tax credits, private foundations, and a state income tax check-off that raised millions of dollars, much of which is targeted for case managers in the apartment buildings.

More ‘Housing First’ projects followed the success of Sunrise Metro, facilities with a different focus.

Palmer Court used to be a Holiday Inn.

Now it is 201 apartment units, many of them for families.

And federal Head Start programs are right on site, helping kids get ready to go to public school while giving them a stable home life.
The people here say it’s a way of breaking the cycle of poverty.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Kelly Benson Apartments, for the chronically homeless who are 55 and older.
And one of the newest developments is the Bud Bailey complex. This is 136 units, just 16 for the chronically homeless. The rest are for refugee families and people paying market rates.

The path to these facilities begins at the aptly named emergency shelter “The Road Home.”
Executive Director Matt Minkevitch said “Emergency shelter is not our end game. It is not our goal. We want to help people get out of shelters get out of homelessness, and into housing.”

The Road Home operates Palmer Court, making a direct link for many families to move out of the shelter.

When a family comes in for an intake to shelter, they are given a housing assessment at the same time. So from the day they come in in crisis they are looking at the way out.

Minkevitch said the problems they deal with in Utah are the same in every state.

“I think there are some common myths, everyone’s from out of town, the majority in from out of town. That reminds me of Lake Wobegone where ‘all the kids are above average.’ That simply can’t be true. We know that people are coming in from other states and other communities and coming to Utah. So too so we understand there are people that are leaving Utah, and going to other states and finding similar problems there, and are on the sidewalks in California and Maine and Massachusetts.”

The ‘Housing First’ program has been a big success. Utah has reduced its chronic homeless count by 91% since 2005. Some of those not yet placed choose not to move in, and likely never will.
And the housing is permanent. Though some people will get squared away enough to move on, others will live here for the rest of their lives.

Could the Utah model work in Maine? In fact, it already is, in a smaller way.

Thursday on NEWS CENTER at six, we will look at Maine’s ‘Housing First’ projects, and focus on what it might take to duplicate the success that Utah has achieved and put an end to chronic homelessness in Maine.

Watch Part Two here.