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Alap Davé is an associate at the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, where he supports work in economic mobility. This column is adapted from an essay published in The Catalyst. It was distributed by InsideSources.com.
The United States is facing one of the worst housing crises in its history. The problem has turned homelessness into an epidemic. Not a single state has an adequate supply of affordable homes for renters in the lowest income bracket. On any given night, almost 600,000 Americans are unhoused.
The good news is that a solution to this crisis exists. One state — Utah — shows that reframing one’s understanding of the problem and providing homes without conditions is safer, more effective and cheaper than the alternative.
The critical first step to a broader solution is targeting the chronically homeless. Although this subset of the unhoused population — people who have been without a home for 12 months over three years — represents only 22 percent of the total, they use far more emergency services than the episodically homeless and, therefore, consume a disproportionate share of taxpayer dollars.
In the early 2000s, a handful of states led by Utah drew on the clinical work of a psychologist named Sam Tsemberis to try a new approach. At the time, most homelessness programs required potential clients to prove they were already in treatment or sober. As a result, most such programs largely failed.
What if the government gave homes to those in need and worried about services afterward, Tsemberis wondered. In 1992, Tsemberis developed the Consumer Preference Independent Living Model, a housing program that also provided clinical support. The program was revolutionary at the time, and the results of its early trials were astonishing. Participants enjoyed higher housing retention, improved health and reduced substance abuse. It wasn’t long before Tsemberis’ model — now called Housing First — became the hot new approach for dealing with the problem.
In Utah, the cause was championed by an unlikely private citizen: Lloyd Pendleton, an auto executive and bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Pendleton’s well-earned reputation for management led the church to lend him to Utah’s state government to help reform its shelter system.
In 2003, Pendleton attended a homelessness conference in Las Vegas, where he met Tsemberis and learned about his approach. At first, Pendleton was skeptical. His conservative beliefs made him suspicious of what sounded like a handout. But it was hard to argue with Tsemberis’ data, and Pendleton soon embraced the model. In 2006, he was tapped by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman to become the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force.
Pendleton pushed the Housing First method hard during his tenure, and the approach soon garnered backing across the political spectrum. Its cost-effectiveness appealed to conservatives, while the ethics of providing homes resonated with liberals. Elected leaders came to see Housing First as a humane and cost-effective solution backed by data — and not a partisan issue.
The results were spectacular. Between 2005 and 2015, Utah saw a 72 percent reduction in chronic homelessness. What’s more, the state estimated it was saving $8,000 per person housed through the program — savings that amounted to a 40 percent reduction in total money spent on the unhoused.
And then something strange happened. Beginning in 2015, support in Utah’s government for Housing First began to unravel. Ignoring the data, certain business leaders and voters looked at anecdotal evidence — such as the persistence of some people camping on certain streets — and concluded that the problem had worsened. In 2017, newly elected leaders began starving Housing First programs of funds. And sure enough, Utah’s chronically homeless population began to grow again.
Critics of Housing First claim that the recent reversal, rising costs, and a paucity of employed beneficiaries are evidence of the program’s shortcomings. But such claims are unfounded. In 2020, a review of 26 studies confirmed that the Housing First approach decreases homelessness by 88 percent, increases housing stability by 41 percent, and improves the quality of life for the unhoused relative to traditional approaches. The data also show that for every dollar invested in the program, Housing First saves $1.44.
When asked for advice on how other states can replicate his success, Pendleton cites “the three C’s”: champions, collaboration and compassion. And Salt Lake City’s recent regression suggests a fourth: consistency.
However, the best thing about Housing First is that it’s compassionate and pragmatic. It is grounded in the recognition that housing is a basic human need, but it is also the most efficient and cost-effective approach to the problem. If anything can unite the country behind a comprehensive attempt to solve homelessness, it should be that combination.