SALT LAKE CITY -- Homelessness in the United States is an issue of growing concern, and Utah is no exception--there are about 14,000 people who are homeless living in the state.
Utah's annual Homeless Summit focused on how the state can help provide long-term housing stability for those currently with no place to go. Joseph Hardy, who has long struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, spoke at Wednesday's summit and said he has been able to stabilize his life through the state's Housing First program.
He said homelessness is a difficult cycle to break.
“I have a very long history of homelessness, dating all the way back to age five,” he said. “I moved around a lot as a child. I felt like I was growing up in the back seat of a car.”
Hardy was part of a panel of former homeless residents who were on hand to help those in attendance fully understand the plight faced by those who are living without shelter. The Housing First program is just one of the many programs aimed at helping people like Hardy get back on their feet.
Gordon Walker, Director of Housing and Community Development, said giving people a place to call home is often the first step.
“Housing First means that instead of having people change their lives first, we put them into housing so that they then can make the choice as to whether they change their lives,” he said.
Another program familiar to Salt Lake City is the re-purposing of old parking payment receptacles into donation bins for collecting money to help those who are in need. The donation bins give those who donate an alternative to handing money directly over to panhandlers, thus ensuring their donations go to a proper program benefiting all. The collective efforts appear to be working.
“We have reduced chronic homelessness in the state by 72 percent from when we started, and we continue to work to make sure we will end chronic homelessness within the state,” Walker said.
Chronic homelessness refers to those who have been consistently or very frequently without a place to live. Utah's overall homeless population has also dropped considerably, in part due to Utah’s low unemployment rate.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said, “the good news is that unemployment is very low, which means if you want a job, there’s a really good chance you’ll be able to find a job.”
For people like Hardy, the Housing First program (along with all of the state’s continued efforts) is a coveted gift that is helping him work toward his goal of building a secure way of life.
“These are some of the things that people don't see,” he said of the issues people who are homeless face. “They take those things for granted. I can walk to my fridge, and I can get food out of my fridge when I’m hungry now.”