Successes in Other Communities

Something small and simple can be powerful. 

Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia has a “pay it forward” system.  Customers can pre-purchase $1 slices for those in need.  The person donating the dollar writes on a sticky note to the one who will receive the warm, fresh pizza slice, and sticks the note to the wall, where they are redeemed to feed a homeless person.  Rosa's Fresh Pizza has given away almost 10,000 slices of pizza.  (Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Hidden Heroes (showing kindness to strangers), Boniuk Foundation, CBS News, October 24, 2015)

An Effective Homeless Solution.

After a decade-long initiative, chronic homelessness in Utah has now dropped to an unprecedented low.  In 2005, Utah was home to 1,932 chronically homeless; but by April 2015, there were only 178, an unprecedented 91% drop statewide.  By the end of 2015, the chronically homeless population of Utah may be virtually gone. 

The State of Utah offered to give
every chronically homeless person in the state a home.  Those given apartments under the Housing First program pay rent of 30% of their income or $50, whichever is greater.  In 1 year, of the 17 homeless people housed, 14 were still in their homes, and 3 were dead - an 80% success rate.    

Their secret:  Give homes to the homeless.  Utah's surprisingly simple homeless solution - One home, one family at a time.  Utah was spending $20,000 on each chronically homeless person, and there were almost 2,000 of them.  Then, they decided to set them up with their own house, and get them counseling services to re-acclimate them to modern life.  

Lloyd Pendleton said, “We call it housing first, employment second....It's a very simple solution to a very complex issue...You put them in housing first…and then help them begin to deal with the issues that caused them to be homeless….They’re part of our citizenry.  They are to them and us.  It’s ‘We.’”  

The old model assumed that before you could put people into permanent homes you had to deal with their underlying issues—get them to stop drinking, take their medication, and so on. Otherwise, it was thought, they’d end up back on the streets. But it’s ridiculously hard to get people to make such changes while they’re living in a shelter or on the street. “If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it seems to work better,” Nan Roman, the president and C.E.O. of the National Alliance for Homelessness, told me. “It’s intuitive, in a way. People do better when they have stability.”

Of course, the chronically homeless are only a small percentage of the total homeless population. Most homeless people are victims of economic circumstances or of a troubled family environment, and are homeless for shorter stretches of time. The challenge, particularly when it comes to families with children, is insuring that people don’t get trapped in the system. And here, too, the same principles have been used, in an approach called Rapid Rehousing: the approach is to quickly put families into homes of their own, rather than keep them in shelters or transitional housing while they get housing-ready. The economic benefits of keeping people from getting swallowed by the shelter system can be immense: a recent Georgia study found that a person who stayed in an emergency shelter or transitional housing was five times as likely as someone who received rapid rehousing to become homeless again.

Our system has a fundamental bias toward dealing with problems only after they happen, rather than spending up front to prevent their happening in the first place. We spend much more on disaster relief than on disaster preparedness. And we spend enormous sums on treating and curing disease and chronic illness, while under-investing in primary care and prevention. This is obviously costly in human terms. But it’s expensive in dollar terms, too. The success of Housing First points to a new way of thinking about social programs: what looks like a giveaway may actually be a really wise investment. The Housing First program actually saves money in the long-run.  It costs an average of $19,208/year to take care of a chronically homeless person living on the streets (ER visits, EMT runs, shelter time, jail stays); but only about $7,800/year to house and provide a case worker for that same person.  (Sources:  “Utah’s Strategy for the Homeless:  Give Them Homes,” by Jacob Rascon and NBC Nightly News, May 3, 2015,;
Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force; “Home Free?” by James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, September 22, 2014; Dept. of Workforce Services State of Utah)