Lessons from Utah

Preeminent expert on homelessness calls for housing-first model in Chico

Lloyd Pendleton is director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force.

Lloyd Pendleton is director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force.

Photo by Howard Hardee

The national epidemic of homelessness is a slow-onset disaster, according to Lloyd Pendleton, who suggested the affected communities don’t react as they would to floods, earthquakes or hurricanes.

“If you have a sudden-onset disaster, you’d rally together and the community would solve the problem,” he said. “With a slow-onset disaster, sometimes we don’t cope with it as effectively.”

Pendleton was addressing an audience at Bidwell Presbyterian Church on Monday (Oct. 10). He’s well-versed on the subject. For the last 13 years, he’s advocated on behalf of impoverished people and, in 2005, authored Utah’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. As of 2015, the plan had reduced Utah’s population of chronically homeless people by a little more than 90 percent, from about 2,000 to 200.

The success gained national media attention, including a segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. During an interview in the clip, Pendleton stated simply: “We did it by giving homes to the homeless people.”

Now he’s spreading that message across the country. His presentation, titled “Housing First: A Solution to Homelessness,” was hosted by the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force and sponsored by several local agencies, including the Chico Housing Action Team.

With hundreds of Chicoans looking on from church pews, Pendleton was introduced by Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center, who looked over the audience and said she was “already heartened by such support.”

For two hours, Pendleton outlined the basics of why Utah was successful in reducing chronic homelessness, but he warned there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Also, he emphasized that his home state still has a problem.

“We have never claimed to have ended homelessness,” he said.

Some 14,000 people in Utah still live on the streets. His 10-year plan reduced only the percentage of people who are chronically homeless—defined by U.S. Housing & Urban Development Department (HUD) as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” Most homeless people do not meet those criteria.

For that specific population, Utah, “the reddest of red states,” as Pendleton described it, successfully implemented the housing-first model. It’s based on the principle that people should be moved into housing directly from the streets and shelters without preconditions of treatment acceptance or compliance—i.e., sobriety requirements.

The greatest community impact, Pendleton said, is achieved by placing priority on the chronically homeless, the least functional people who continually strain police departments, jails and hospital emergency rooms. And there’s an economic argument on top of the humanitarian one. It costs less annually to house chronically homeless people ($10,000 to $12,000 in Utah, Pendleton said) than letting them repeatedly engage such public services ($30,000 to $50,000, according to HUD).

At the latest count—provided by Butte County’s 2015 Point-in-Time Census Report—44 percent of the 571 homeless people in Chico were chronically so.

As for solutions, the community needs compassionate, energetic champions of homeless people—people who care deeply and will work with a sense of urgency, Pendleton said. They must care not only about individuals and families on the streets, but about the well-being of everyone.

“If you don’t have champions of the cause, in my experience, it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said.

The effort would inevitably include people with opposing viewpoints on homelessness, Pendleton said, which actually can be advantageous. Together, they would seek creation of a plan—not agreement.

“We all have different views on our homeless citizens,” he said. “That’s wonderful. We bring those views together and work for the common good, because our homeless citizens are suffering. They’re in need. They’re there for a reason—trauma in childhood from physical, mental and sexual abuse.

“To condemn and judge them doesn’t really help,” he continued. “It doesn’t help at all. … How we view [homeless people] becomes very important.”

The plan itself must be guided by a clear and compelling vision. It also must be results-oriented; the outcome, not the process, is what matters. “Networking and capacity-building are the means, not the end,” he said. For example, Utah explored multiple avenues, including converting abandoned hotels into low-income housing and leveraging federal funds to build new units, all with the same goal—helping homeless people reintegrate into society.

To that end, keeping people housed and supported by a case manager is critical, Pendleton said.

“Housing is just the first step, then it’s stabilization, reconnection with family and integration into the community. Once they have the hope and support they need, they can seek treatment, because there are addiction and mental health issues, no question.”

Reaching a solution is impossiblewithout buy-in from local service organizations and elected officials at the city, county and state levels, Pendleton said. Ideally, they would form a committee of community leaders capable of making systemic changes and developing a “crystal-clear vision statement.”

However, such a statement is useless without the “political will” to push it, said Chico City Councilman Randall Stone, a progressive who’s up for re-election on Nov. 8. As a member of the executive committee of the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, Stone was seated front-and-center for Pendleton’s talk.

During a phone conversation, he said he can’t picture the current City Council embracing the housing-first model. Notably, the council’s conservative bloc—Mayor Mark Sorensen, Vice Mayor Sean Morgan, Councilman Andrew Coolidge and Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer—did not attend the event.

“One takeaway is that this needs to be a collaborative effort from every single group,” Stone said. “We must work together. … If you don’t have everyone engaging in the discussion, there is no vision.”