Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans

Eradicating homelessness may seem like a pipe dream. But two American cities have proven that doing so, at least among certain populations, is within reach.

Salt Lake City, Utah has taken the title of being the second city in the United States to end chronic homelessness among military veterans, Mayor Ralph Becker (D) told MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. “We really have gotten to the point now where we can say we have ended veterans’ homelessness in Salt Lake City,” he said on her show. The city did a census and “we now are down to eight veterans who have indicated at this point that they’re not interested in having homes, but we’re continuing to work with them.”

When Harris-Perry asked how the city succeeded in such a daunting task, Becker told her that it took the whole community — state and local government, nonprofits and for-profit companies — to “come together and work together in an unusually collaborative way” and be “singularly focused on ending homelessness.” While there can never be enough resources, he said that every sector did offer them up.

The city also, like Phoenix, decided to focus on chronic homelessness first, as that would be “key” to the project of ending it overall, he said. Chronic homelessness occurs when someone experiences homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. The chronically homeless have the highest rates of substance abuse and health problems among the homeless population overall. Phoenix succeeded in ending chronic homelessness among veterans by first identifying them and then using the “Housing First” approach, which provides people with somewhere to live without first requiring that they be sober or drug-free. That can give them a more stable base from which to address other issues. The city then coupled that housing with other services, spending $1.8 million in local general funds and using $6.5 million in federal grants.

Focusing on housing has not only proven effective in Phoenix and Salt Lake, it’s also much cheaper than leaving people unsheltered. Other innovative ideas have been implemented in different places, such as providing the homeless with lockers to store their belongings and offering a day-long fair with all of the services someone might need in one place.

In 2005, Utah put forward a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness and significantly reduce overall homelessness, which is the same timeline President Obama and the Department of Veterans Affairs has put forward. Both cities beat these plans by a year. Salt Lake and Phoenix were in “a wonderful friendly competition” to end homelessness first, Becker said.

Across the country, there are more than 57,000 homeless veterans on any given night. While that figure has dropped by 24 percent since 2007, there is clearly still a lot of work to be done to meet the 2015 goal and recent budget cuts threaten to reverse that progress. Beyond veterans, there are more than 600,000 homeless individuals in this country, 100,000 of whom are chronically homeless and two-thirds who go unsheltered.

The need to eradicate homelessness is literally a life or death issue. Violence against the homeless is on the rise and more than 350 people have been killed just because they were homeless over the past 14 years. Meanwhile, temperatures are at freakishly low levels in many states, leaving the homeless particularly vulnerable to frostbite and death.