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Initiative to end chronic homelessness in Utah successful

SALT LAKE CITY — The success of a 10-year initiative to end chronic homelessness could mean the eventual closure of the emergency overflow shelter in Midvale.

Last winter, there were excess beds available each night in The Road Home's downtown emergency shelter, which officials attribute to the success of rapid rehousing programs that place homeless families and individuals into permanent supportive housing. Once they settle into housing, they can begin work on the issues that have contributed to their homelessness. There have been as many as 100 open beds on some nights.

Chronic homelessness in Utah has fallen 69 percent since 2006. Since 2010, the number of people considered "chronic homeless" — people who have experienced homelessness once within the past year or have had three episodes of homelessness in four years — has dropped 26 percent, according to the 2011 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness released Wednesday.

"If we continue this, it won't be too long before we can close the Midvale emergency shelter, " said Gordon Walker, director of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development, during a press conference Wednesday during Utah's Eighth Annual Homeless Summit.

No single individual was bused to the Midvale shelter last winter, although the facility was used by families. It costs about $950,000 a year to operate the shelter, funding that could be redirected to preventing individuals from becoming homeless, said Pamela Atkinson, a longtime advocate for Utah's homeless.

Given the ongoing recession and its effect on families, no one is talking about closing the overflow shelter soon, Walker said, but the excess capacity in emergency shelter beds has changed the conversation. "It's an ongoing discussion," he said.

Atkinson said advocates hope that when the Midvale shelter is shuttered that resources will be redirected to preventing homelessness, such as teaching people how to better manage their money, shop and cook in an economical and nutritionally sound manner and connecting with government and community resources "at the first sign of a problem."

"Some people just need help for one or two months," Atkinson said.

Yet, many people are reluctant to reach out for help because of pride. "There are a lot of people who have been able to take care of themselves. With the recession, all of a sudden they can't."

According to the annual Point in Time Count conducted Jan. 26, 2011, there are an estimated 3,114 homeless people in Utah. Estimates suggest that 14,351 people will experience homelessness in Utah throughout 2011. However, overall homelessness in Utah is at a four-year low, the report says.

Homelessness has slightly decreased about 8 percent since 2010, while chronic homelessness has declined 26 percent, according to the report.

The Point In Time count determined that 442 people were unsheltered — living on the streets, cars, vacant buildings — the day of count. Annualized estimates say nearly 1,900 could be unsheltered throughout 2011. In Salt Lake County alone, the count found 158 unsheltered individuals, one of which was an unaccompanied minor. Statewide, four unaccompanied minors were recorded on the Point In Time count.

More than 80 percent of the state's homeless population is in Salt Lake, Weber and Washington counties.