During a balmy 60ºF December morning, Rene Zepeda is driving a Volunteers of America minivan through Salt Lake City, Utah, looking for the homeless who may be camping by the railroad tracks or over by the river, sometimes in the foothills.
Rene works for a program called Housing First. It has decreased the number of homeless by an extraordinary 72% — mainly by providing permanent free housing. Critics bemoan the expense, but once the numbers were thoroughly crunched, it was discovered the program actually costs the state far less than if people were left on the street. Moreover, in a nation where a large proportion of the homeless population are military veterans, adopting such a program is not only a social or financial imperative but a moral one.
It began in Utah as a 10-year project to eliminate homelessness. State legislators were hesitant, but eventually embraced the idea. When the cost of emergency room visits, police intervention, shelters and halfway houses were taken into consideration, it was found that providing permanent housing was much more cost effective. Before Housing First, Utah was spending around $20,000 a year for each chronically homeless person. But with the program in full-swing, the state saves an impressive $8,000 per person. “We’ve saved millions with this,” said Gordon Walker, director of the state Housing and Community Development Division. Today, the project is close to eradicating homelessness in the state.
The brainchild is credited to Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist at New York University, who formulated the idea of ending homelessness through unconditional housing.
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