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Utah, ending homelessness and lessons for us all

Mother Jones recently ran a fantastic article about a way to completely solve the chronic homeless problem, which has important lessons for any social organization.

There are over 600,000 homeless people in the United States at any given time, including over 215,000 chronically homeless.  This, even though over 10,000 non-profit organizations are dedicated to solving this deep seated issue.

The most effective approach to addressing homelessness has been clearly established: provide people on the street a stable shelter first.  Housing should come before health, education, religious instruction, rehabilitation, or any other service that help homeless people help themselves.  For most people who are homeless, living in stable housing ends up being the prerequisite to an individual taking control over their life.  At the same time, putting people in stable housing reduces stress — and the money spent — on public and social services who have to step in when health or crime related issues become an emergency.  ‘Housing First’ has become the battle cry.

And yet, over a decade since the federal government adopted ‘Housing First’ as the most important strategy in addressing this issue, we’ve only made a dent in the number of people living on our streets.   The overall ecosystem of social organizations supporting the homeless remain geared towards demanding that a person on the street change their behavior and/or demonstrate their willingness to change, before getting them settled in reliable housing.  The amount of housing required to solve the problem remains woefully short. In other words, our beliefs that individuals must be capable and accountable for their actions are getting in the way of the demonstrated fact that stable housing is needed to solve the problem.

Enter Utah.  Utah, one of the most conservative states in the US, has gone all in on this principle.  As of last year, 80% of the chronic homeless problem in Utah had been eliminated — with plans to address the rest.  What stands out, and is dear to our heart at Altruist Partners, is:

  1. The commitment is to solve the entire problem as fast as possible, not make incremental progress towards solving the problem over an indefinite period of time.
  2. Serious effort was made to educate the Utah based donor community and social ecosystem about why this approach made sense … basically, they developed a plan and took it out for a test drive in the community.
  3. They are measuring results very closely.

Kudos to Utah .. will others follow?

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