Utah County has halved chronic homeless over three years. Here’s how.

A “housing first” approach prioritizes stabilizing people in housing so they can work on other challenges.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephanie Drake in her home at Bonneville apartments in Provo on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.

Provo • The renovated motel where Stephanie Drake now lives is a far cry from the temporary places she found refuge during the nearly two years she spent on the streets, sleeping in a friend’s shed or in a car parked off Center Street.

Drake, 56, said the small Provo apartment has been a stabilizing force — helping her deal with addictions, gain steady employment as a cleaner at a local hotel and rebuild her life. “I appreciate everything that’s happened to me,” she said in a recent interview, as she reflected on the jail sentence that ultimately led her into housing.

Drake is one of 58 tenants at the Skyline and Bonneville apartments, which specifically welcome people who have been chronically homeless. Under a “housing first” approach, tenants don’t face credit checks or scrutiny of their rental history. Their housing isn’t contingent on a certain income, sobriety, or a clean criminal record. And while they’re encouraged to get job training or find work, it isn’t a requirement.

The future of this strategy for getting people off the streets in Utah could rest to some degree on the opinion of the state’s new homeless services coordinator, former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. After studying housing first projects in Utah and other states, Niederhauser said, he is convinced it has merit.

“What I’ve learned over the last couple of months is that nobody is really going to heal unless they have a stable housing situation,” he said.

Utah attracted national press attention about a decade ago after officials declared they’d nearly eliminated chronic homelessness through a housing first initiative. But in recent years, critics in Utah and elsewhere have knocked the model as too expensive and enabling people to continue destructive patterns of behavior without consequences.

[Read more: Photo essay — What homelessness looks like in Utah County’s ‘Happy Valley’]

While Niederhauser agrees that having a safe home is critical to a person’s recovery from trauma, he said, housing on its own isn’t enough — it must be paired with case management and other services. And he said he might differ from the most staunch housing first advocates in his belief that there should be some requirements placed on residents.

“There needs to be at least some expectations,” he said. “So it’s not just the housing. It’s how the housing is operated or who’s running the housing that makes the difference.”

For now, Skyline and Bonneville apartments — run by the Provo City Housing Authority — can be seen as one of the state’s case studies.

Over the past year, the Skyline facility, which opened at the end of 2019, has had an 84% retention rate, with five evictions, according to the housing authority. The Bonneville complex, where rent is free and which tends to serve clients with higher needs, had a 56% retention rate in its first full year, with 12 evictions.

Robert Vernon, executive director of the housing authority, said there were similar success rates at Skyline when it first opened, and he anticipates the retention rate at Bonneville will increase as tenants get renewed access to services that were lacking during the pandemic.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A trio of bedrooms at the Bonneville and Skyline apartments in Provo.

“People looking for success ratios need to understand that these people have lived on the street for two or more years and need to relearn many of the behaviors we take for granted,” he said. “Some of these residents sleep on the floor beside or under the bed for weeks or months until they overcome their fear of being inside.”

Service providers and advocates say this approach has been a success in Utah County, which doesn’t have a homeless shelter. Advocates credit it with helping the community reduce chronic homelessness by 50% over the last three years, based on a list service providers keep of everyone experiencing homelessness in the county.

The number of people on that register dropped during that time frame, from 210 to 104.

Heather Hogue, project manager and coordinator with the Mountainland Continuum of Care, notes that generally, people who have been chronically homeless don’t “stay housed.” Providing wraparound services makes a difference, she said.

“These are people that have an extensive drug history, extensive mental health, extensive criminal histories,” she said. “I mean, it’s remarkable. Once that basic housing need is filled and then as services are offered and services are encouraged, people are getting their crap together.”

Some people who have received housing have reconnected with family members and old friends, have gained steady employment, or have been able to receive the health services they need to improve their quality of life. Others have been able to access needed medication to address mental health challenges.

“The only cure for homelessness is a home. I mean, by definition,” Hogue said.

Provide housing first and stable lives can follow, advocates say

Over the past couple of decades, communities across the nation have embraced a relatively straightforward philosophy built around the idea that the first step out of homelessness is getting into housing.

While some programs require people to meet certain criteria as a condition of getting into homes, proponents of housing first argue that dependable housing gives people the stability they need to pursue treatment, jobs and case management.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raul watches a soccer game in his home at the Bonneville apartments in Provo.

“People need to feel safe and secure,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home nonprofit. “We need to support individuals and families who are strong and work hard to get out of homelessness in the areas they are working on in their lives and support them on that goal. We can’t impose what we think they should be doing on them.”

Utah’s earlier housing first initiative gave rise to multiple permanent supportive communities across the Salt Lake Valley. One of these is Palmer Court, a 201-unit community retrofitted from a defunct Holiday Inn and now operated by Flynn’s organization.

Flynn said these long-term apartments, which offer heavily subsidized or no-cost rents along with on-site support services, have proven to be extremely successful, with retention rates of about 95% in communities located in Salt Lake County.

The state’s greatest need right now, she said, is for deeply affordable housing, such as tiny home villages and other microunits or hotel and motel conversions.

For the most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals, though, a permanent home in a community with wraparound services is the right fit, Flynn said.

Yet the construction of deeply affordable homes and permanent supportive complexes has been sluggish over the past decade, as the state’s population and housing costs have been surging.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kitchen table at the Bonneville apartments in Provo on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

There’s a debate over the value of a ‘tenth chance’ to succeed

One of the major criticisms of housing first is that these long-term communities are too lax in the behavior they tolerate.

Permanent living options with support services should come with requirements for engaging in them, said Dave Kelly, chair of the Pioneer Park Coalition, which advocates on homelessness and other issues affecting Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood.

“If anybody is looking at this saying, would I want supportive housing or something in my neighborhood or down the street, I think almost everybody would say … we can’t have drug use,” he said. “We can’t have rampant drug use, because that leads to cartels and dealers moving in.”

But Vernon said housing first isn’t just about giving someone one chance to change their life — it’s also about the “second, third, fourth, fifth, tenth chance.”

An alcohol or drug abuse incident would not necessarily get someone evicted at Bonneville or Skyline. Neither would mental health episodes, he said, citing one tenant who was having delusions and pulled all of the electrical wiring out of his unit.

“It was really expensive to have to redo that,” he said. “But we let him back in because it was a medication issue. So you know, it truly is housing first. We’re really working with them to keep them housed.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Televisions at the Bonneville and Skyline apartments in Provo.

That isn’t to say tenants are never evicted, though — typically as a result of what Vernon calls “chronic rule breaking.”

One of the main problems the housing authority sees is tenants frequently having guests over — usually friends who remain homeless — who may cause noise or other problems for fellow residents. Other times, he said, people lose their apartment after they’re arrested and the facility fills the property with another tenant.

But Vernon credits “wraparound services” — including case workers who can help sort out any issues between the housing authority’s property managers and the tenants — with helping the majority of people stay in housing.

“This is pretty hands on property,” he said, “and that’s what it takes to be successful.”

Housing first requires finding funding first

Vernon said there’s one major obstacle to replicating the programs at Bonneville and Skyline around the state: funding.

The Provo City Housing Authority has signed a 15-year lease on the 56 units at Skyline and Bonneville. As part of the deal, the property owner agreed to fund needed improvements, to the tune of about $100,000 at Bonneville, along with around $50,000 from the authority, and $67,000 at Skyline.

Had the property owner not been willing to front some of the maintenance costs, Vernon said, the permanent supportive housing units might never have come to fruition.

“The issue is finding money and finding an owner that’s willing,” he said. “Especially if you can find somebody that is willing to actually put a little money into the property before they give it to you. If not, you know, we would have had to have found $100,000, $150,000 just to get it ready to go.”

The State Homeless Coordinating Committee gave the housing authority $221,567 toward the cost of running the Bonneville Apartments for 2021 and $269,560 for Skyline the previous year. Both of the old former motels have required frequent maintenance, from fixing old pipes to repairing air conditioners, Vernon said.

Kelly, a real estate agent, believes any homelessness strategy that centers on these permanent supportive communities is doomed to fail precisely because of the expense — construction costs alone in the Salt Lake Valley are through the roof, he said.

And once one of these complexes fills up, you have to keep building more because they’re designed to accommodate people for many years, he said.

“I don’t mean to sound horrible, but the only way that you move on from permanent supportive housing is dying, right?” he said. “Or if a relative is like, ‘Oh, hey, we found our brother or dad or son. Come live with us.’”

In most situations, the goal should be to help people access the physical and mental health care they need, as well as case management and drug treatment so they can live as independently as possible, he said.

Long-term housing arrangements are necessary in certain cases — such as when someone has a chronic health condition and will likely never be able to live independently, he said. But he thinks transitional or affordable housing is preferable for most people.

“We can’t just say, permanent supportive housing, and that works, and that’s going to work for everybody,” he said. “All that does is get it to where we’d have to try to outspend homelessness.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A temple and Mount Timpanogos as seen from Skyline apartments in Provo.

The financial investment is significant, but Hogue said it’s incorrect to assert that permanent supportive housing is pricier than the alternative.

“Across the country, as they’ve done financial analysis, they’re finding that it’s more expensive to leave a person homeless on the streets than put them in permanent supportive housing for a year,” she said. “Because of the interactions with emergency services and medical services and police officers, it’s more expensive and less humane.”

Vernon further contends that the units have saved “a ton of money” in Provo by reducing the number of emergency services requests the community had to shoulder. “Before we took over this, the Old Travelers Inn, they were getting about nine calls a day [for] emergency, police or ambulance,” he said. “It was a major issue. A lot of drugs.”

And unlike in a shelter model, he noted, the money that’s spent on converted motels goes toward the ultimate goal.

“You’re actually giving people permanent housing rather than just a couple meals and a place to sleep overnight and then they’re back on the street,” he said. “It’s a totally different approach and it’s been amazing.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tim Southerland at home in the Skyline apartments in Provo.

Vernon said the Provo City Housing Authority has a wait list for the apartments and sees a need for around 50 similar units. It’s under contract to purchase another Provo motel, the Executive Inn, but is still searching for the funding.

The existing units have made a big difference for people who previously experienced homelessness in Utah County. Tim Southerland, a resident at the Skyline facility who helps manage the units, said he’s a “different person” now than he was five years ago.

“Having a place that I can close the door and be sheltered from the rain, the cold, the heat is just the best thing in the world, because everything else can be dealt with if you feel like you have a safe place to be,” he said. “And to me, that’s what this represents.”