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The Answer to Homelessness

Why conservative Utah gives away housing

Utah is the fourth most conservative state in the union, according to a January Gallup survey. Only 15 percent of residents identify as “liberal.” Yet the Beehive State is on the cusp of ending chronic homelessness using a new method that would appear to come straight from the Nancy Pelosi playbook—by giving away housing.

In 2005, the Republican administration of Gov. Jon Huntsman introduced a “centrally led and locally developed” strategy to defeat long-term homelessness. Called Housing Works, the program began with 17 people who had lived on the streets at least once in the previous year. The goal was to lead them to self-sufficiency, but they kept the housing even if they failed to pull their lives together.

Today, this strings-free approach has decreased homelessness by 74 percent, and by 2015 the state hopes to reach all 3,000 cases of homelessness. Denver has seen success with a similar effort, and Wyoming, the most conservative of all states, is poised to follow suit.

Conservatives know that giving away handouts decreases incentives to work and that, generally, welfare is the enemy of freedom. As Lee Bright of South Carolina, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary this year, reminded us: welfare is “legalized plunder.” He insisted: “Liberty is just the right to keep what is yours. When you raise taxes and put that burden on people, you take away their freedom.”

In choosing to give away housing to those who did not earn it by their labor, Utah may appear to be a bastion of “legalized plunder” in which hard-working Utahns are victimized by a powerful state government believing that somebody else deserves what they have earned. But dig deeper and you find a pioneering effort that is, first of all, effective and, if viewed properly, honors the spirit and substance of conservatism.

The model for Utah’s program took shape years earlier in New York City. Clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis had grown frustrated with orthodox methods that called for the homeless to overcome addiction, seek treatment for mental illness, and find work before getting housed. Tsemberis realized none of that was possible without housing first. So in 1992 he founded Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit group that has slowly transformed the ways municipalities address homelessness.

“The disengagement between the person wanting a place to live and a system that is offering treatment and sobriety and participation in programing as a condition for housing has failed people like this for years,” Tsemberis said during a 2012 presentation in Providence, R.I.

Tsemberis struck out to change that system. His strategy hinges on getting the homeless into permanent housing in order to establish ties to a community. The tenant agrees to pay a nominal rent of no more than 30 percent of whatever income he has. And he must abide by lease agreements, just as any other renter would do. Moreover, he is not forced to seek treatment for mental illness or addiction, but he is offered such programs by a full-time case worker who regularly visits to help the tenant negotiate his way through the maze of social services and charitable organizations.

“People are more likely to chart new paths if they have stable housing and meaningful choices from which to start,” Utah’s Homeless Coordinating Committee said in a plan-of-action report released in 2008.

Tsemberis’s program attracted the attention of Republican governors around the country because it ultimately saved money. Lots of taxpayer money. When Utah officials added up the amount going into medical treatment and law enforcement, the cost to the state per homeless individual was more than $216,300 a year in 2007 dollars, according to Housing Works. The cost of housing, rent assistance, and full-time case management, meanwhile, was just $19,500.

But fiscal restraint wasn’t enough to persuade some in Utah. After all, this is a deeply conservative state, and there’s something offensive about the idea of someone getting a free handout, especially something as valuable as housing. Surely skeptics were correct in assuming some kind of failure of character.


“There is an implicit assumption that because that person is homeless, it is [due to] something about them. Perhaps they didn’t work hard enough or what had been given to them had been squandered.” Tsemberis said in his 2012 presentation, acknowledging the proclivity among citizens and policymakers to “hold [the homeless] accountable for their suffering.”

Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, once agreed. But he’s now working with Wyoming officials to replicate his state’s success. He said in public remarks last year that he used to tell homeless people to find work. Then he found his views being challenged by the depth and complexity of the problem. His experience moved him to push aside one part of his conservatism, personal responsibility, and more closely embrace another. “These are my brothers and sisters,” he said. “When they’re hurting, we’re hurting as a community. We’re all connected.”

Eventually, Utahns like Pendleton came around to seeing the wisdom of providing housing without strings attached. Though it may at first sting a bit to see someone getting something he didn’t work for, over time most recipients of free housing take responsibility for their lives, Tsemberis says. Once they have the stability of housing, they can beat addiction, manage mental illness, seek more education, or find employment. Housing, critically, must come first.

In that spirit, Tsemberis argues that the Housing First model doesn’t just help the homeless. It helps the rest of us. “There’s a price that we are paying for homeless,” he said in 2012. “Not noticing is costing not only the people still homeless on the streets but it’s costing us. If we take for granted the feeling of seeing a homeless person and walking by, we have to shut down part of ourselves in order to tolerate the pain we’re walking past. In that we are together in a shared suffering, that actually can be alleviated.”

John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator.