“Heartbreaking,” is how Matt Minkevitch, the Road Home’s executive director, remembers it. He had spent nearly three decades helping the less fortunate, and was on the hunt for fresh solutions to the intractable problems he saw.
Minkevitch figured he could accommodate the overflow if he could find another place for his longest-term residents – the “chronic homeless.” Although they accounted for just 15 percent of the city’s homeless population, they consumed a disproportionate share of the shelter’s resources. But they were also the hardest to house.
At the time, to qualify for transitional housing in Utah, homeless people generally had to be sober and drug-free. Most weren’t anywhere close. Even if they had the will to try, Minkevitch knew it was a losing battle to ask someone who had to endure cold winter days and scorching summers to give up the self-medication of booze and drugs for a long shot at a government-funded apartment.
Desperate for a solution, he turned to Lloyd Pendleton, a clean-cut former automobile-industry finance manager in his 60s who had never been homeless, had never let a drop of alcohol touch his lips, wasn’t a housing expert, and, in the words of another social-services leader, had “all the warmth of a calculator.” Pendleton might have been strait-laced, but he also had a special skill set, and he relished challenges. He was about to retire from the welfare department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the institution’s highly organized effort to provide for those in need around the globe. To Pendleton, nothing felt more urgent than helping the people living on Salt Lake City’s streets.
At the outset, he was skeptical of those with overly ambitious goals to end homelessness. “I thought they were smoking something,” he recalled. “There’s no way.”
Pendleton, who eventually became director of the state’s inter-agency Homeless Task Force, decided to educate himself. He traveled the country to visit shelters in various cities. He eventually fixed on an approach so radical that no city or state had been willing to implement it on a large scale: Instead of demanding that the chronic homeless overcome their drug and alcohol addictions to qualify for housing, he wanted to offer them a clean, safe place to live without precondition.
The concept, which has been dubbed “Housing First,” made perfect sense to him. “It is unrealistic for the chronically homeless to get clean, dry, and sober on the streets,” he says. “But if you can put a roof over their head, it becomes much easier to address all of those issues – to give them a chance at becoming a productive member of society.”
Minkevitch and other social-services leaders agreed, but they all knew that the idea of putting hard-core drug addicts and alcoholics in government-funded housing would be a tough sell in Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature. Pendleton, a political conservative who had built strong relationships with some government officials through his work in the Mormon church, was undaunted.
In 2003, after a conference on homelessness in Chicago, he peered out the window as his plane ascended above the clouds and pondered his plans. Utah was conservative, for sure, but he also regarded it as compassionate. The Mormon church, a dominant force in the state, had a deep commitment to helping the less fortunate. And the state population was small enough to serve as the laboratory for a bold new idea.
If there’s any state in the Union that can make this work, he thought, it’s Utah.
Housing First had been tried before, with success, in small pilots in New York City and Seattle. But Pendleton knew he couldn’t march into the offices of government leaders in Utah with those results.
“Here in the West, we’re skeptical of ideas that come from New York City and Washington, D.C.,” he says. “We don’t necessarily trust those ideas.”
Instead, Pendleton led an experiment: Utah would start by offering housing to 17 chronically homeless people and then evaluate the results. Those 17 would be among the toughest cases – people who had lived on the streets for years, those with severe addictions, those with disabilities.
“I was reared on a ranch in the western desert, and we had a wood stove that I had to chop wood for,” he says. “I learned to chop the big end of the log first.”
The early months brought challenges. A few of the people inducted into the program left their possessions in their new apartments and then went back to spend time on the streets, and social workers had to persuade them to return. Others put their belongings on the bed and slept on the floor. One man even took to curling up by the dumpster behind his apartment complex.
In the middle of the first winter, a social worker discovered another man’s apartment was frigid.
“Why don’t you turn up the heat?” she asked. “How do you do that?”
“See this on the wall? It’s the thermostat,” she said.
The man, who hadn’t had a home for two decades, had no idea what it was.
When the project hit obstacles – political opposition, community skepticism, bureaucratic inertia – Pendleton calmly built the consensus necessary to navigate around them.
Twenty-two months later, he announced the results: All 17 people in the pilot were still living in their homes. None of them had returned to the streets. None were in jail. None had overdosed.
Not only was life better for those 17, it was cheaper for the city and the state. When the costs of emergency room visits, jail time, and shelter services are tallied, one homeless Utahan costs the various state agencies about $20,000 a year. The cost of Housing First was about $12,000 per person. “It was a flaming success,” Pendleton says.
These early results allowed him to expand his Housing First work. In addition to placing the chronic homeless in vacant apartments across the state, he urged the creation of housing facilities where once-homeless residents could mingle with each other and engage with on-site social workers.
In Salt Lake City, a three-story hotel on Main Street was converted into 200 apartments. And a new 84-unit building was constructed from the ground up and named Grace Mary Manor. Each of its furnished, 370-square-foot studio apartments includes a kitchenette, a bathroom, a bed, and a television. With its manicured lawns, quiet hallways, and fitness room, it could be mistaken for a mid-priced suburban hotel. There is a library with internet-connected computers and a game room with a pool table. Out back are community garden plots and a volleyball court.
“We want to make sure people have a reason to come out of their room and they have some quality in their living,” says Kerry Bate, the former director of the Salt Lake County Housing Authority, which developed the facility to support Pendleton’s Housing First effort.
For the privilege of living in a Housing First unit, residents must pay at least $25 a month. If they have a job or receive Social Security, they are required to contribute 30 percent of their income.
Some residents continue to use illegal drugs, which is permissible in the eyes of the housing authority so long as they do it in their apartments and they don’t sell controlled substances to others. But Bate says drugs haven’t been a significant problem, largely because life with four walls and a roof has reduced the reasons to get high, as has access to substance-abuse treatment programs.
“The real lesson here is that we’re all human beings. Sometimes some of us look disheveled and may be speaking to people who aren’t there, but there’s still a rich, vibrant, talented human being there,” Bate says. “And if we can get them to a place where they have a chance to achieve wellness and have support, where they can enrich their lives and contribute, then we’re all better off.”
Since adopting Housing First, Utah has reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent.
This extraordinary accomplishment is rooted in the work of numerous social-services leaders in the state. But many of them, in turn, are convinced that much of the credit is due to the man with the calculator personality. “I do not believe for a moment that the success that we’ve achieved with Housing First in Salt Lake City would’ve ever happened without Lloyd,” says Minkevitch, the shelter director.
Pendleton took over the state’s homeless task force when he was 66 – an age at which many Americans retire. “I realize most people at that age want to travel and play,” he says. “I saw a greater opportunity to continue to serve and bring hope to our homeless citizens.”
He stepped down from the task force last year, but he’s not resting on his laurels. Now 76, and still suffused with energy, he’s shifted his focus to persuading other cities and states to try Housing First.
“Any community in the country can do it,” he says.
As he drives through downtown Salt Lake City, he still sees homeless people on the streets. There are far too many to allow him to believe he’s solved the problem. But what he also sees is that the city’s shelters are no longer turning people away, because the decrease in the chronic homeless population has freed up beds.
“Reducing homelessness in our society is a continuum. It’s a process. We knew we couldn’t do it all at one time,” he says. “We picked one part of it and drilled down and we made it work. When you do that, it makes the overall system more effective and you wind up helping more people.”
Dustin Ivey’s apartment consists of a twin bed, a kitchen table with two chairs, a recliner, a television set, and a DVD player. He has no art on the walls, no framed photos, no vacation souvenirs, no mementos whatsoever from 34 years of life.
Still, every morning, he looks around and thinks he’s in heaven.
“I’m able to wake up, provide for myself, go to work, enjoy life on life’s terms, and not be a slave to sleeping on the streets, worried if I’m going to get robbed or if I’m going to be able to afford my drugs,” Ivey says.
Ivey, now stocky and goateed, first became homeless at 20 after becoming addicted to heroin in his teens, getting in trouble with the law, and being asked to leave his mother’s house. Although he found places to stay – with a girlfriend, buddies, other relatives – for a while, those options dwindled. For most of the eight years until he moved into Grace Mary Manor, he lived on the streets of Salt Lake City.
Some nights were spent on park benches, others in a shelter. He whiled away his days trying to scrounge enough money, often through petty crime, to feed his heroin habit. Eating was a secondary consideration.
“I was living a vicious cycle,” he recalls. “The drugs reinforced my homelessness, but my homelessness reinforced my need for drugs.”
Last year, he contracted a flesh-eating bacterial infection that led to his hospitalization. While he was there, a doctor warned that unless he kicked his heroin habit, he was on the fast track to the morgue. During his treatment, staffers at a shelter told him that he should apply for the Housing First program.
Since arriving at Grace Mary Manor earlier this year, he has started a new life. He bathes daily and wears clean clothes. He has a part-time job working at the complex’s front desk. And he’s planning to attend community college to study applied science. He recently taped the first item on the wall of his apartment: a hand-drawn periodic table.
“When I was on the streets, people looked at me with disgust, like I was a disease,” he says. “I was in a bad spot, but I wasn’t a bad person. Now, I have an amazing opportunity to go where I want to in life.”