It’s hard to get back on your feet while sleeping on the street. Utah's found a solution.
Did you know that in some cities in America, it is illegal to give food to someone who is homeless?
The list of cities that criminalize feeding homeless individuals isn’t a short one. In many cities, it's also illegal to sit or sleep in public areas, leaving homeless individuals with no safe place to spend the night. These laws are essentially making it illegal to be homeless.
Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old homeless veteran, was trying to sleep in the stairwell of a building on a cold night in Harlem in 2014. He was arrested for trespassing and put in jail. Susceptible to heat due to his antipsychotic and antiseizure medications, he ended up dying in his cell, likely as a result of overheating.
Murdough’s is an extreme case, but it highlights the absurdity and cruelty of how we’ve tried to tackle homelessness in this country. Instead of measures being put in place to help individuals without a home gain stability and safety, they're often punished for their circumstances — making it even harder to get back on their feet.
Lloyd Pendleton saw the flawed way homelessness was being addressed and thought there had to be a better way:
In particular, Pendleton took issue with the requirements homeless individuals had to meet before they could receive help.
He recalls that the conventional wisdom in the late 1990s was that a homeless person needed to be "clean, dry, and sober" in order to receive housing assistance from the very institutions designated to help them. He wanted to give people — especially those who are chronically homeless — the chance for stability first, so they could get back on their feet, instead of requiring them to try to address these issues in the midst of chaos. The solution is so simple it seems rather obvious: housing first.
Housing is key. Housing means stability.
Recognizing this, Pendleton stepped up and implemented a "housing-first" method of rehabilitation in Salt Lake City, Utah. And the results have been incredible.
Pendleton said, "In 2005, we decided to do a pilot, which ended up with 17 individuals off the streets, straight into housing. 22 months later, all 17 were still housed. It was a powerful turning point for us."
Families are able to get their feet on the ground and live a "normal" life again, within a supportive community. Residents have a chance to take care of medical issues. To get their teeth fixed. To reconnect with their families. To take care of the problems plaguing them so they can move forward, healthy and confident. Most importantly, to have hope.
In the 10 years since the program’s introduction, Utah reduced its chronically homeless population by an incredible 91%. Cities across the country have looked to it as a model for effectively reducing chronic homelessness.
Said Pendleton, "You can never end homelessness, but you can give them housing opportunities. That can be done."