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About Utah: Utah’s attack on homelessness a model for the nation

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SALT LAKE CITY — From the day he plunged head-first off the corporate ladder to take a $5-an-hour job as a cook in the soup kitchen, there has been no question about Matt Minkevitch's passionate desire to serve the homeless.

But it took dispassionate statistics to convince him of the best way to serve.

And it's a combination of the two that has homeless advocates across the nation looking with envy at what's happening in Utah.

Utah's homes for the homeless initiative, now in its ninth year, has attracted far-reaching and favorable attention because of its dramatic results. The concept of rehabilitating the hardest core of the homeless community by providing them with permanent homes of their own has resulted in far more stability and success than critics predicted.

Folks no one thought would ever drift off the streets for more than a night or two, people with chronic mental and physical health problems and intense drug and alcohol addictions, are sleeping in their own beds every night — and saving the community in the process by alleviating jail time, reducing demand on emergency rooms and other health care services and, in some cases, renting apartments from landlords that otherwise might remain vacant.

At the forefront of this campaign is the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, where Minkevitch has been executive director since 2000. He began caring for the poor full-time 13 years before that when, at the age of 27, he left a management position at a large Salt Lake City hotel to hire on as a chef at the Catholic Community Service's St. Vincent de Paul Shelter. (Cooking jobs is how he paid his way through college at the University of Utah, where he graduated with a degree in literature.)

It meant a substantial cut in pay and starting over for Minkevitch, who shrugs and says of that career-changing decision, "We all know it ain't about money." He had just turned 40 when he left St. Vincent's for the position at the Road Home, known at the time as the Traveler's Aid Society.

In 2003, Minkevitch was part of a nine-member Homeless Coordinating Committee sent by Utah Lt. Gov. Olene Walker to Chicago to attend the HUD Policy Academy, where the Bush administration's Interagency Council on Homelessness revealed detailed statistics showing that roughly 10 percent of those who use shelters can be considered "chronic" and account for more than 50 percent of their use.

Thereafter, focusing on the needs of that 10 percent, and on strategies to secure permanent housing and services for them, became the mandate in Utah — with impressive success. In 2011, Minkevitch traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept the award for the Road Home as the Nonprofit of the Year by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In a recent conversation in his Road Home office, the Deseret News talked to Matt Minkevitch about Utah's approach to homelessness.

DN: What makes the Road Home model work so well that out of thousands of nonprofits addressing the homeless problem around the country, it was singled out as the very best?

MM: There are so many ingredients, and it's all of them working together — a very active board, an incredible staff, volunteers, the community support, all of it. Invariably, anyone from Utah who's in this line of work understands how remarkable the level of collaboration is in this state from agency to agency, from all the providers, from every level of government. That's something that sets Utah apart. The kind of collaboration that leads to remarkable results and that others recognize.

DN: So there isn't just one magic ingredient?

MM: Not at all. It's like I tell my staff, OK, which is more important, the red blood cell or the white blood cell? Which one do you want to do without? It's so important in this collaboration to realize that everyone is an essential ingredient. When you start to pull out different players, or highlight one at the expense of another, that doesn't recognize all these involved relationships that exist that make important things happen. Often we can look to one piece, one player, and get excited or understand the value that they bring, but it's important to recognize one's value in the context of others.

DN: It appears Utah has tailored its own unique plan to address homelessness. How did that come about?

MM: We first looked at what they're doing elsewhere, in places like Seattle, Portland, Minnesota, Ohio and New York, lots of places. We started connecting with them, we borrowed from them all, really. New York has a model for scattered sites, we borrowed from that. Seattle has a more project-based approach, we borrowed from that too. We wanted to do something meaningful and substantial and transform ourselves from an agency where shelter is a destination to where shelter is just the first step out of a difficult situation.

DN: Among the homeless, whom exactly are you identifying?

MM: Those who could be called chronic, individuals who have spent 700, 800, 3,000 nights in a shelter. Eighty-five to 90 percent of those who stay in the shelter don't need us more than a night. We target those who are living here, those with a very specific, deeply acute need. They might have mental or physical health issues or addictions, and we're going to get those folks out of the shelter and into housing where they can better address those problems.

DN: And you're seeing progress?

MM: Ten years ago we were busing about 200 men a night to (a secondary emergency shelter in) Midvale. We're serving more people now than we did then, but we don't have to bus to Midvale any more. So we have created flow. We still have some 700- to 1,000-night stays, and that's a challenge. We're moving the needle in the right direction, but no one's doing an end-zone dance yet. But we have moved some of the most challenging individuals I've ever known.

DN: Any examples you could share?

MM: There was one individual whose lack of hygiene was so extreme that she had to be separated from everyone when she came in the shelter. She had some very serious addictions. It was a process (to move her into housing). At first she just left some of her things there, but didn't stay. But eventually she moved in, and you should see how she kept it. It was spotless.

DN: You sound surprised.

MM: So many times I've thought, God help us, and I mean it. There is prayer involved, and plenty of it.

DN: There were skeptics who didn't think this homes-for-the-homeless approach would work.

MM: We were all skeptical, but we knew we had to do something. Because, just look at the math. If we don't create flow then we're not facilitating this tool. There's always going to be the need for a safety net, a hospital's always going to need an ER. But what's going on across America right now is homeless shelters have turned into this gigantic ER that's bigger than the hospital. Helping someone to survive, that's shelter, but we want to help them thrive.

DN: And you're seeing some thrive?

MM: It's not at all uncommon for me to see someone who's been in housing three, four, six months and I don't recognize them. The physical transformation that takes place is incredible. It's nothing less than I guess a figurative resurrection when they make that turn. I've had people come back to me, men and women I've known well, and say, "Hey, Matt," and they have to tell me who they are, and I had no idea. I didn't think the next time I saw them they'd be among the living.

DN: Housing makes that much of a difference?

MM: There's a therapeutic element to housing that I didn't fully realize until we started implementing this. There's a lot of situational depression (in the shelter) and I think part of it is because they're homeless.

DN: Your involvement is obviously personal as well as professional.

MM: It goes back to something my father always said: "Matt, you can either be part of the solution or part of the problem."

DN: And in this case, the solution benefits all?

MM: I don't believe we can achieve our potential as a community, as a society, as a nation, as humanity, if we're not reaching out to those among us who are in our most distressed position. Spiritually of course it's the right thing to do, it's how we can grow, but from a pragmatic standpoint, we're going to have addiction, we're going to have poverty, we're going to have shortages of housing, shortages of resources, we just are. So we can blame those on the short end of the stick and establish the rationale that they chose it so that's that, tough for them. Or we can do something about it that is really humane, and that benefits society in every way.

DN: What do you see for the future?

MM: I don't know what it's going to look like in the end, but I have a vision and I think quite a realistic vision that there will be more housing and more targeted services — so in the future we can have smaller shelters with a lot more housing that is much less expensive, and far more rewarding, than running a homeless industry across America.

EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com