A message about homelessness for Everett: Build homes first

EVERETT — More than 300 people packed the Historic Everett Theatre Monday evening to listen to a plainspoken former rancher talk about his simple solution for ending chronic homelessness.

The answer: give homes to the homeless.

Lloyd Pendleton, the architect of the state of Utah’s Housing First initiative, came to Everett at a time when Mayor Ray Stephanson has taken on the city’s problems with homelessness head-on.

Housing First means what it says: give the homeless a home, and only then can you deal with the person’s addictions, mental health problems or other issues.

Tenants are not required to remain sober or obtain treatment. There are on-site case managers to help them obtain services when the tenants want them. But as long as the residents don’t sell drugs, assault other tenants or commit other crimes, they can stay.

“Housing is key because you can’t expect to provide that kind of support on the street,” Pendleton said.

It’s the kind of so-simple-it-can’t-be-true counterintuitiveness that the satirical “Daily Show” did a sketch on the Utah program.

Stephanson’s proposed budget for 2016 includes $2.2 million in funding for various social services and law enforcement programs that directly deal with homelessness and the related issues of substance abuse, mental health and street crime.

Those include hiring social workers to work out of the police department, creating a special unit within the department and hiring a manager to oversee the implementation of the Streets Initiative Task Force’s 63 recommendations.

“We still have a crisis on our streets, but we have the right people on the problem,” Stephanson said while introducing Pendleton, who spoke from the floor of the theater in a jacket, tie and cowboy boots.

The mayor has also announced a plan to build 20 units of permanent supportive housing over the next two years.

There are probably at minimum 1,000 homeless people living without shelter in Snohomish County alone, according to the January Point in Time count. 20 units doesn’t seem like much.

But one of the first pilot projects Pendleton oversaw in Salt Lake City in 2005 had just 17 units for the most chronic utilizers of social services, emergency rooms, or law enforcement contacts. Since then, Utah has provided permanent supportive housing for 1,700 out of 1,932 of the most chronically homeless people in the state.

Pendleton was working in the welfare department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the state of Utah tapped him to lead the development of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

“The governor at the time was supportive of the idea,” as were several key social services agencies and housing authorities, he said.

That allowed the key players to simultaneously realign the state’s resources to the new program, launch the pilot program in several locations simultaneously, and start construction on the first 100-unit development. The LDS church kicked in $7 million to help fund the initial construction.

Pendleton didn’t have a background in social services: He has a degree in political science, and an MBA, and worked in the finance department of Ford Motor Co. before joining the church administration.

But some lessons from the business world stuck with him, and he brought them to bear on this new problem.

Most important: the issue needed a champion, someone who would take ownership of the project and see it through to its conclusion all across the state, from Salt Lake City down to the Four Corners in southeast Utah.

“I didn’t send somebody out. It was me going out so there was a consistent message deliverer,” Pendleton said.

Also important was viewing the problem through the lens that the homeless were people, who had needs they couldn’t meet themselves, and not nuisances to be removed or rendered invisible.

But there’s an economic case to be made for housing first programs as well, especially in a conservative state like Utah.

Several studies have estimated that the costs to society, ranging from social services, to emergency room use and jail time, range from $36,000 to $49,000 per person per year.

Among chronic utilizers, the costs were even more extreme. One person in Salt Lake City accounted for $537,000 in emergency room costs in 2010. Another incurred more than $937,000 over three years.

Meanwhile the cost of just providing a home for the homeless costs the state a much more bearable $12,000 per person per year, Pendleton said.

The crowd at the Everett Theater warmed to Pendleton’s straight talk, and he admitted he used to be opposed to providing help without conditions.

“I was raised on a ranch. I’ve said the words, ‘You lazy bums, get a job,’” he said. “My opinions have morphed over the years.”

Many questions from the audience drew similar blunt answers. One member of the audience asked if the state was just providing a place for homeless alcoholics to drink.

“Yes, we are,” Pendleton said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_at_Herald.

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