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Utah's big drop in chronic homelessness is 'fiction,' economist says

But state says its count has been refined over the years

SALT LAKE CITY — Is it an "unrealistic narrative" or is Utah's reported 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness over a decade a bona fide success?

In recent years, Utah's experiences have been chronicled by the national media ranging from the Washington Post, Business Insider and even "The Daily Show." Most tell variations of a story that the state has virtually ended chronic homelessness by giving people homes.

Kevin Corinth, a fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a recent Huffington Post article and an article on the institute's website, takes a different tack.

"The miraculous story of a 91 percent reduction in chronic homelessness appears to be fiction," he writes for American Enterprise Institute.

It starts with the annual count of homeless people conducted each year in January as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Teams of volunteers fan out across their respective cities nationwide and survey unsheltered people they encounter. The counts are the basis of each year's Point-in-Time Count provided to federal officials, which are annualized.

Corinth says the results of Utah's Point-in-Time Count reported to HUD included different math and classification procedures during the decade of 2005-2015.

"If you take the actual Point-in-Time Counts reported by Utah to the federal government, and if you remove the two time periods when the changing numbers were driven largely by how the chronically homeless were classified, then chronic homelessness wouldn't have fallen at all over the past decade," he said.

Tamera Kohler, director of the state's Community Services Office, said the count has been refined over the years, with state officials and nonprofit partners developing more sophisticated record keeping and survey tools.

In the early years of Utah's 10-year initiative to end chronic homelessness, acting on the advice of human services professionals and what was considered best practice at the time, volunteers were instructed not to talk to people believed to be homeless.

They instead recorded their observations, such as numbers of people and types of makeshift shelters, if any. The numbers were annualized — adjusted upward to reflect people who might not be counted that night but would become homeless during the year.

"There's nothing wrong with annualizing numbers. But Utah was inconsistent. For example, the Point-in-Time Count was doubled in 2009 but it wasn't adjusted at all in 2015," Corinth wrote for Huffington Post.

Utah volunteers now engage unsheltered people they meet during the count, which is conducted one day in late January before daylight on a date chosen by HUD. Volunteers use formal questionnaires to guide their interviews and collect uniform information.

"What we did 10 years ago is not what we do today," Kohler said.

In addition to the federally required Point-In-Time Count, Kohler said state officials and service providers also conduct monthly "triage" meetings to assess whether the needs of chronically homeless Utahns — fewer than 200 people and most of them known by name — are being met.

HUD's definition of chronic homelessness includes people who experience one episode of homelessness longer than one year or have had four episodes of homelessness in three years, and they have a disabling condition.

Of the entire population of homeless people in Utah, chronically homeless people make up about 3.9 percent of the whole but they are some of the most vulnerable and expensive individuals to serve, Kohler said. In other cities across the country, chronically homeless individuals make up 10 to 15 percent of other communities' homeless population, she said.

While the Point-In-Time Count provides one snapshot of information about Utah's homeless population, Utah's inventory of dedicated permanent supportive housing units and rapid rehousing units grew considerably between 2005 and 2015, Kohler noted.

Palmer Court, Sunrise Metro, Kelly Benson Apartments and Grace Mary Manor opened during that period, adding hundreds of units of housing for chronically homeless people.

"You house this many people, that itself has an impact on how many people are still in our system on that one night," Kohler said.

Kohler said she, too, uses data to make funding decisions so she welcomes Corinth taking a hard look at counting procedures across the spectrum.

Utah officials said they have reached out to Corinth and have encouraged him to visit the state to learn more about Utah's efforts to reduce homelessness.

While Corinth writes that Utah's state data was "used to spin the tempting but unrealistic narrative that ending homelessness is as simple as giving homes to the homeless people," he also says the Beehive State has done a lot of good things.

"The state has rightly focused most intensely on the homeless who sleep on the street and who have serious problems with mental illness and addiction. Hundreds of people have been moved from the street and shelters into housing. Whether the overall numbers have plummeted the way Utah reports should not distract from these positive steps," he writes.

While some pit the progress of one state against another, Kohler said Utah government officials and service providers are focused on improving service delivery and improving the well-being of homeless people or formerly homeless people one year to the next.

"We still are learning how to properly engage this population and meet their needs. We're still trying to figure out how to get this right," Kohler said.