South Salt Lake • Darwin Osborn had lost hope he’d ever have his own bed to sleep in again.
After suffering two heart attacks in a row in 2017 and with no way to pay his rent during the next three weeks he spent in the hospital, he was evicted from his apartment. When he was discharged, Osborn, 64, moved in with his daughter but was displaced again soon afterward when she was evicted.
Osborn eventually ended up homeless, spending his days on the streets and his nights in and out of shelters in the Ogden area north of Salt Lake City. He was sick. He was depressed. And he couldn’t see how his situation would improve — even after the Navy veteran connected with Veterans Affairs and obtained a federal supportive housing voucher offering rent assistance.
He looked for months but found it difficult to find a place for less than $1,000. And the eviction and felony drug charges in his past “made it a tougher struggle to try to get anything,” Osborn said.
“I went into places where I was qualified but [the eviction] was on my record so it automatically disqualified me, regardless of the explanations I had,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview.
Finally, after months of searching, Osborn found a landlord who would take a chance on him. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment this spring in South Salt Lake, where he said he has been better able to manage his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and begin sorting out his finances.
“To me, this is a castle,” he said, looking proudly around the apartment.
As service providers brace for a possible capacity crisis within the new system for providing homeless services in the Salt Lake City area, Osborn is one of dozens of formerly homeless Utahns who isn’t taking up one of those beds — thanks in part to a state initiative launched earlier this year to move an extra 100 people off the streets ahead of that transition.
In an average five-month span in 2018, 220 people moved into housing with support from organizations in the Salt Lake City area, according to Christina Davis, a spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. From April to August 2019, providers helped house 355 people, exceeding their goal.
The “100 More Housed” initiative targeted those who had been homeless for more than six months and made use of an additional $400,000 in state funding for application fees and deposits and to hire case managers to match those eligible for vouchers with appropriate housing.
“We know it’s a tight housing market, and especially for very low-income households," Davis said, "so just having that extra help to kind of get over some of those barriers, take care of fees,” was essential.
On Wednesday, partners involved in the transition to a new system for delivering homeless resources announced they were dedicating up to $1 million to help get people into housing and are calling on landlords to join them in a four-week push to free up space in the overcrowded shelters.
That may be more easily said than done.
Housing advocates with Salt Lake City have estimated there’s a gap of at least 7,500 apartments that are affordable to renters making $20,000 or less. Rent in the county jumped from an average of $720 a month in 2010 to $1,072 last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s midyear 2018 Apartment Market Report — and it hasn’t showed signs of slowing.
Low vacancy rates and high prices have presented one of the primary challenges to moving people into housing: a reliance on the goodwill of landlords, some of whom may be hesitant to take on tenants who face mental health challenges or lack a clean rental history.
Part of the “100 More Housed” initiative was a plea to property owners to do their part to help solve a communitywide problem in which the solution, Davis says, is housing.
“When landlords come to the table and are willing to work with our case managers," she said, “that’s an essential part of this process.”
But accepting tenants who have had difficulty retaining housing in the past can pose challenges for landlords, said Jeneanne Hansen, the former property manager at Osborn’s apartment complex.
While the vouchers come with a guarantee of on-time rent payment and with the promise of case managers who can help mediate any conflicts, she said there can still be problems — particularly when drug use and addiction are in the picture.
“A lot of times it is hard because you’re trying to think of the community and the long term,” Hansen said. “It’s great to fill [a vacancy] and it’s great to have that backing of the state of on-time payments, but there are sometimes greater risks for the community as a whole.”
Osborn, she said, had several complaints against him from neighbors and the maintenance manager, who raised concerns about the number of people coming and going from his apartment at all hours of the night. He dismisses those claims.
Despite the many obstacles to get there, housing is seen as an important stabilizing force for people experiencing homelessness, helping them to address mental health, employment and physical health issues. It’s also a key ingredient for the success of the three new homeless resource centers in the Salt Lake City area.
The move from the 1,100-capacity downtown homeless shelter to the smaller resource centers — two in Salt Lake City, which are already operational, and one in South Salt Lake, which is planned to open next month — has been billed as a way to provide a better system for delivering services like food, medical care, employment assistance and case management to people experiencing homelessness.
But with a gap of beds in the new system and capacity challenges already emerging as the weather grows colder, getting even more people housed is increasingly vital.
“Having emergency shelter is important, but it’s more important to have places for people to move into,” Davis said. “We’re still in a transition phase, and it’s essential in this transition phase, as well, because every person we get into housing is making a bed available to multiple additional people.”
As the state works to house more people, Osborn said he sees several policy changes the state could make to get there, including changes to the “good landlord” laws and more work programs for people with felonies on their records.
Those involved in homeless services already plan to work with state leaders to reevaluate those laws to prevent discrimination in housing, according to a new strategic plan for addressing homelessness. Within the next few years, they also want to coordinate with the existing Section 8 Landlord Incentive Program to establish a similar statewide mitigation fund to offset costs for high turnover and property damages related to housing formerly homeless individuals.
As he enters the next phase of his life, Osborn said he’s grateful to the property managers who were “willing to take a bet” on him.
And he’s content to appreciate the little things that he says people who haven’t experienced homelessness may not notice.
“I can shut the door when I want to be alone,” he said. “I can turn on this TV here. I can change the channels. I can watch what I want to watch; I’m not sitting in a waiting room, not forced to watch something all day. I get to take a shower when I’m ready to. I have my own bedroom.”
“This right here," he concluded, “is just perfect.”