There's Shelter, And Then There's Housing. Utah Claims Muted Victory
Utah has housed nearly all of its chronically homeless people — those who have a disabling condition, and who have been homeless for more than a year, or four times in the past three years. These days, there are fewer than 200.
But chronic homelessness is just a small part of a major problem.
An additional 14,000 people in Utah experienced homelessness this year. As in many places around the country, housing prices are rising, forcing people onto the street and into shelters.
The streets outside the Salt Lake City shelter The Road Home are still bustling with activity — people waiting for a free meal, or looking for a room inside.
Jennifer Carter has been living at the shelter with her two children, who are 5 and 7, for about two months.
The Carters share a room with roughly 200 other people, all families, at the shelter. The room is full of steel bunk beds with thin mattresses. Carter says people who live at the shelter call them "jail beds."
"I sleep on the bottom, and I let [the kids] sleep on top," Carter says. "Most of the time, my youngest sleeps with me."
Plastic bins full of clothes, shoes, fleece blankets and jars of peanut butter are stacked on the bunks.
Carter, who is 30, has a degree in business management and accounting. She used to have a job answering phones. But when her work hours were changed to evenings, Carter says, she couldn't afford child care.
So she quit and worked odd jobs but couldn't make rent.
"I tried to talk to the landlord about making an arrangement," Carter says. "I had most of the money, but I still needed a little. And so I was like, 'Can you wait till Wednesday?' And she told me if I didn't have [the rent] by Friday I had to leave."
Carter was evicted.
At that point, she went to the shelter. It was the second time the family has been homeless this year.
Carter's children keep going to school, but, Carter says, living at the shelter has been tough on them.
"The hardest thing is like they're tired because it's loud," Carter says. "There's a lot of people. There's a lot of crying babies. It's loud, they don't get a lot of sleep."
But Carter has a plan. While the kids are at school she works the computers and phones at the shelter.
"My strategy is I do 10 job [applications] a day," Carter says. "And I call 10 of the previous week."
But she's worried that even if she gets a job and even if she can leave the shelter, she might not be able to afford everything — like rent, food, clothes, toiletries and utilities.
"Even [when] I was making $13.50 an hour. My rent was almost $900 a month for a two-bedroom," she says.
And then there's after-school care for her two children.
"They would have to go to day care for two hours, [and] that was $800 a month for both of them," says Carter.
How is she going to handle all of those expenses?
"I don't really know," she says.
Carter has now moved to another Road Home facility, just outside Salt Lake City in Midvale. She's also is in the process of getting assistance called Rapid Re-Housing. Many cities and states are using the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored program, which gives people just enough money to get a place to live.
The idea is it costs less to pay a family's security deposit and first month's rent than it does to keep the family in a shelter for months and months.
But as housing prices continue to rise, in Utah and in most major cities across the U.S., this won't work long-term, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
"A better solution would be to have more longer-term rental subsidies," says Roman. "But we don't have them. So rapid rehousing is better than leaving people in shelter."
The real need, Roman says, is simply more affordable places for people to live.
Officials in Utah agree the need is urgent.
"The market is very, very tight," says Janice Kimball, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake. "And we're seeing a lot of lower-income people get priced out of the market. ... We just don't have enough affordable housing at any level."
According to Roman, this lack of affordable housing is a newer problem.
"When I started working on housing and urban issues in the 1970s, we really did not have widespread homelessness at all," says Roman, "and that's because there was an adequate supply of affordable housing."
Roman says a big part of the problem is inaction from both developers and politicians.
"It's a mystery as to why there's not more attention paid to it," says Roman. "Congress regularly ranks housing as one of the things that they're least interested in pursuing or working on. There doesn't seem to be a lot of political will around it, and it's hard to see, with 560,000 homeless people on any given night, how bad things have to get before we decide to do something about it."
The federal government has a plan to end family and youth homelessness in five years.
But with housing costs and rents continuing to go up all around the country, getting people housed keeps getting harder.