Tribune Editorial: Utah could learn a thing or two from Reno. And Miami. No, really.

It’s a moral obligation of our society to come through for those in the most need.

Utah knows what to do about homelessness. We did it once, and won the plaudits of the national media.

But solving the problem as it existed in 2015 and allowing yourself to think there’s nothing else to be done ignores the fact that, like our population generally, the need for affordable and supportive housing has continued to grow. But our once-successful efforts have not nearly kept up.

This failure makes no sense. It is not just that homeless people are suffering needlessly. It’s not only that the rest of the community is left to deal with an often frightening presence on our streets. It’s that what we are doing — or failing to do — is so clearly fiscally irresponsible.

Hope Springs, a program that serves the homeless in Reno, Nevada, has run the numbers and says it costs $36,000 a year in taxpayer and private funds to deal with a single homeless person who is committing petty, or not so petty, crimes, requiring police and EMS services, in and out of jail, the ER or detox. That’s compared to $15,000 a year to provide supportive housing to that same person.

The solution, Utah realized once before, is properly called by a couple of names. One is “housing first.” That means getting unsheltered human beings under a roof, without first setting expectations such as getting a job or even giving up drinking or using drugs.

Getting people to move toward healthy behaviors is nigh onto impossible while they are on the street, or living in the woods.

The other label is “permanent supportive housing.”

We’re not talking about luxury penthouse living. We’re talking small rooms or “tiny houses” where those experiencing homelessness can gain shelter from the elements and a modicum of privacy not available in a barracks-style facility. Lacking that bit of dignity is often what leaves the homeless to prefer life on the street to any offered shelter.

Recalling the success Utah demonstrated nearly a decade ago, and seeking to replicate it for a state with a rapidly growing population — and soaring housing costs — is a task that Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Wayne Niederhauser, the state coordinator of homelessness services, have set themselves.

To accomplish it, they will need to ask, cajole, needle, beg, convince and shame members of the Utah Legislature into providing the kind of fiscal support that the issue received the last time we took the problem seriously.

Mendenhall and Neiderhauser will need all the help they can get, from the governor and others, because getting the Legislature, led mostly by members from Utah and Davis counties, doesn’t always prioritize what Salt Lake City needs.

In the last two fiscal years, the state and city put $86 million in federal COVID relief funds into creating housing that counts as “deeply affordable.” That means households making no more than 30% of the area median income can afford the rent. But that federal spigot is about to go dry, even as the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute calculates Utah has a 77,000-unit deficit in deeply affordable housing units.

A dedicated source of revenue would help a lot. Miami-Dade County, Florida, a community now winning the kind of praise Utah used to get for dealing with homelessness, pulls in some $30 million a year from a special restaurant/bar tax. Which would be a benefit to local businesses when they have fewer homeless people on their doorstep.

Along about 2015, Utah became known as the Place That Solved Homelessness. Well, if you read past the headlines, we were the place that solved chronic homelessness.

That’s a subset of folks with a very specific definition. To be chronically homeless, one had to be unsheltered for more than a year, or for four times over the course of the previous three years. They also had to suffer from some kind of “disabling condition,” such as a serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness.

The most recent snapshot count of people experiencing homelessness in Utah, taken in January, was 3,687, up from 3,556 the year before. Of those, 535 were counted in Salt Lake County. About a quarter of those qualify as chronically homeless. Those are the ones creating the greatest strain on the system, and success there would transform individual lives and the well-being of many neighborhoods.

Using the housing first model in the previous decade, Utah slashed the number of chronically homeless people by more than 90%. Of those who entered permanent supportive housing, more than 90% were still housed a year later.

So why do we need to do that again? Because we filled up the 800 or so spots of new permanent supportive housing pretty quickly and didn’t build any more.

Since 2019, the number of chronically homeless in the state grew by 96%, while the number of PSH beds grew by 1%. That’s math going in the wrong direction.

Supportive housing means support, from caseworkers who keep clients on the path toward self-sufficiency, if possible, or at least to an end to self-destructive behavior.

As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune recently, one of the problems is that the pay for case workers is so low that many of them are on the verge of homelessness themselves. Staff turnover for these physically and emotionally taxing jobs is as much as 200%.

The shortage of affordable housing in Salt Lake City is being addressed, with federal, state, local and philanthropic dollars funding more than 200 permanent supportive housing units since 2020 and another 400 or so expected to come online this year.

It’s a start.

If we know how to solve a problem such as chronic homelessness — and we do — and we have the resources — which we should — it is a moral obligation of our society to come through for those in the most need.