KETR

There's Shelter, And Then There's Housing. Utah Claims Muted Victory

Dec 14, 2015
Originally published on December 15, 2015 9:19 am

Utah has housed nearly all of its chronically homeless people — those who have a disabling condition, and who have been homeless for more than a year, or four times in the past three years. These days, there are fewer than 200.

But chronic homelessness is just a small part of a major problem.

An additional 14,000 people in Utah experienced homelessness this year. As in many places around the country, housing prices are rising, forcing people onto the street and into shelters.

The streets outside the Salt Lake City shelter The Road Home are still bustling with activity — people waiting for a free meal, or looking for a room inside.

Jennifer Carter has been living at the shelter with her two children, who are 5 and 7, for about two months.

The Carters share a room with roughly 200 other people, all families, at the shelter. The room is full of steel bunk beds with thin mattresses. Carter says people who live at the shelter call them "jail beds."

"I sleep on the bottom, and I let [the kids] sleep on top," Carter says. "Most of the time, my youngest sleeps with me."

Plastic bins full of clothes, shoes, fleece blankets and jars of peanut butter are stacked on the bunks.

Carter, who is 30, has a degree in business management and accounting. She used to have a job answering phones. But when her work hours were changed to evenings, Carter says, she couldn't afford child care.

So she quit and worked odd jobs but couldn't make rent.

"I tried to talk to the landlord about making an arrangement," Carter says. "I had most of the money, but I still needed a little. And so I was like, 'Can you wait till Wednesday?' And she told me if I didn't have [the rent] by Friday I had to leave."

Carter was evicted.

At that point, she went to the shelter. It was the second time the family has been homeless this year.

Carter's children keep going to school, but, Carter says, living at the shelter has been tough on them.

"The hardest thing is like they're tired because it's loud," Carter says. "There's a lot of people. There's a lot of crying babies. It's loud, they don't get a lot of sleep."

But Carter has a plan. While the kids are at school she works the computers and phones at the shelter.

"My strategy is I do 10 job [applications] a day," Carter says. "And I call 10 of the previous week."

But she's worried that even if she gets a job and even if she can leave the shelter, she might not be able to afford everything — like rent, food, clothes, toiletries and utilities.

"Even [when] I was making $13.50 an hour. My rent was almost $900 a month for a two-bedroom," she says.

And then there's after-school care for her two children.

"They would have to go to day care for two hours, [and] that was $800 a month for both of them," says Carter.

How is she going to handle all of those expenses?

"I don't really know," she says.

Carter has now moved to another Road Home facility, just outside Salt Lake City in Midvale. She's also is in the process of getting assistance called Rapid Re-Housing. Many cities and states are using the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored program, which gives people just enough money to get a place to live.

The idea is it costs less to pay a family's security deposit and first month's rent than it does to keep the family in a shelter for months and months.

But as housing prices continue to rise, in Utah and in most major cities across the U.S., this won't work long-term, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

"A better solution would be to have more longer-term rental subsidies," says Roman. "But we don't have them. So rapid rehousing is better than leaving people in shelter."

The real need, Roman says, is simply more affordable places for people to live.

Officials in Utah agree the need is urgent.

"The market is very, very tight," says Janice Kimball, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake. "And we're seeing a lot of lower-income people get priced out of the market. ... We just don't have enough affordable housing at any level."

According to Roman, this lack of affordable housing is a newer problem.

"When I started working on housing and urban issues in the 1970s, we really did not have widespread homelessness at all," says Roman, "and that's because there was an adequate supply of affordable housing."

Roman says a big part of the problem is inaction from both developers and politicians.

"It's a mystery as to why there's not more attention paid to it," says Roman. "Congress regularly ranks housing as one of the things that they're least interested in pursuing or working on. There doesn't seem to be a lot of political will around it, and it's hard to see, with 560,000 homeless people on any given night, how bad things have to get before we decide to do something about it."

The federal government has a plan to end family and youth homelessness in five years.

But with housing costs and rents continuing to go up all around the country, getting people housed keeps getting harder.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Utah has housed nearly all of its chronically homeless people. That's defined as someone with a disabling condition who has been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years. Ten years ago, Utah had about 2,000 chronically homeless people. Today, there are fewer than 200.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

But another 14,000 people just became homeless in Utah this year as another state's rising housing prices are a big part of the problem. Our co-host Kelly McEvers has this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We are here in Salt Lake City, Utah. We are in a part of the city that's in downtown. There are a lot of services for homeless people here, and that means there are a lot of homeless people here concentrated in this one area. There's a shelter just up ahead of us. There are, right now, hundreds of people waiting outside to get a free meal. When you here about Utah, you sometimes hear that it's a place that's solved the problem of homelessness. And of course, when you come down to a place like this, you see that's clearly not true.

That shelter we see is called The Road Home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And this is Jennifer.

MCEVERS: Hi. How are you?

We go inside and meet Jennifer Carter, who's been living there with her two kids who are 5 and 7.

ASH CARTER: Do you guys want to take the elevator or the stairs?

MCEVERS: She shows us a huge room upstairs that's full of steel bunk beds with thin mattresses. Carter says they call them jail beds.

CARTER: This is my bed.

MCEVERS: So you sleep on the bottom, and the kids sleep on the top or vice versa?

CARTER: So yeah. I sleep on the bottom. I let them sleep on the top. Most of the time, my youngest sleeps with me.

MCEVERS: About 200 people sleep in this room - all families - moms, dads, kids. It's cleaning time, so people's stuff is off the floor. Plastic bins full of clothes, shoes, fleece blankets and jars of peanut butter are stacked on the beds. Jennifer Carter has a degree in business management and accounting. She had a job answering phones, but her hours got changed to evenings, and she couldn't afford childcare. So she quit her job and worked odd jobs but couldn't make rent.

CARTER: I tried to talk to the landlord about making an arrangement. I had most of the money, but I still needed a little bit. I was like, can you wait 'til Wednesday? And she told me if I didn't have it by Friday, I had to leave.

MCEVERS: She was evicted. That was about two months ago. Then she moved into The Road Home. It's the second time the family's been homeless this year. The kids keep going to school, but then, when they come home, it's to a shelter.

CARTER: The hardest thing is, like, they are tired because it's loud. There's a lot of people. There's a lot of crying babies. It's loud. They don't get a lot of sleep.

MCEVERS: Are there fights? Like, do people have their disagreements? There must be.

CARTER: Yes, lots.

MCEVERS: So Jennifer Carter has a plan. While the kids are at school, she works the computers and the phones at the shelter.

CARTER: My strategy is, I do 10 job apps a day, and I call 10 of the previous week.

MCEVERS: The thing is, even if she finds a job, it might not be enough.

CARTER: Even - I was making $13.50 an hour. My rent was almost $900 a month for a two-bedroom.

MCEVERS: Plus childcare.

CARTER: They would have to go to daycare for two hours. It was $800 a month for both of them.

MCEVERS: On top of...

CARTER: On top of rent, food, clothes, toiletries, utilities.

MCEVERS: How are you going to do it?

CARTER: I don't really know (laughter).

MCEVERS: Jennifer Carter is in the process of getting assistance called Rapid Rehousing. It's a program that many cities and states are using to give people just enough money to get a place to live. The idea is it costs less to pay a family security deposit and first month's rent than it does to keep them in shelter for months and months. But as housing prices continue to rise in Utah and in most major cities across the U.S., this won't work long-term, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

NAN ROMAN: A better solution would be to have more longer-term rental subsidies, but we don't have them. So Rapid Rehousing is better than leaving people in shelter.

MCEVERS: The real need, Roman says, is simply more affordable places for people to live, and this is a newer problem.

ROMAN: I can say from my own vantage point that when I started working on housing and urban issues in the '70s, we really did not have widespread homelessness at all, and that's because there was an adequate supply of affordable housing.

MCEVERS: So why hasn't - I guess, why hasn't more been done on this front? I mean, what's holding us back?

ROMAN: You know, it's a mystery as to why there's not more attention paid to it. Congress regularly ranks housing as one of the things that they are least interested in pursuing or working on. There doesn't seem to be a lot of political will around it. And it's hard to see with 560,000 homeless people on any given night how bad things have to get before we decide to do something about it.

MCEVERS: The federal government has a plan to end family and youth homelessness in five years. But with housing costs and rents continuing to go up around the country, getting people housed keeps getting harder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.