Written by Caitlin Endyke
What happens when a conservative state reforms an entire social service program, with the goal of making it more cost-effective? Usually, you’d probably end up with a program that did little to better the lives of the people it served – or you’d have a group of nonprofit service agencies who’d have to pick up the slack. Yet Utah has unveiled the results of a recent overhauling of their programs that serve the state’s homeless population. This time, the change was for the better.
After reports from several other states that show officials cracking down on homelessness by banning them from public spaces, stopping religious groups from distributing food in city parks, or, in Hawaii, by taking sledgehammers to shopping carts used by homeless people, Utah realized that the best answer to curbing homelessness in the state was the simplest one – giving people homes.
In 2005, state officials found that costs associated with homelessness – E.R. visits and jail stays, for instance – were more expensive than the cost of providing free housing. With an estimated cost of $11,000 per person, Utah now provides homeless residents with free apartments – no strings attached – and an assigned social worker tasked with helping each person become self-sufficient (though they keep the apartment even if they don’t meet that goal). In eight years of the program’s operation, the state has reduced homelessness by 78 percent and is on track to eliminate it by 2015.
Granted, a program like this would be a lot harder to enact in a bigger city or more urban state, where the population of people without permanent residences is usually larger and there is less available housing and land to build new developments upon. In New York City, for example, the estimated homeless population is more than 60,000 – 30 times that of Utah’s 2,000. Still, Utah is able to show that it can both solve this problem – helping people begin new lives secure of a place to live – and save money. Seems like an outcome both sides of the political spectrum could agree on, at least in this case. While we can’t advocate for re-vamping all social services with the main goal of cutting costs, we can hope that governments will continue to think creatively about how they can best meet the needs of the people they serve.