Once a national model, Utah struggles with homelessness

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Once lauded as a leader among U.S. cities struggling to relieve homelessness, the number of people sleeping rough in Utah’s capital has spiked in the past two years, as funding for its groundbreaking housing program dried up.

Homelessness is on the rise in the United States for the second year in a row according to a December report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The increase has been particularly noticeable in Utah, which had reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent over the decade up to 2015, according to the state’s annual homelessness report.

Experts attributed the drop to a “Housing First” policy, adopted by the state in 2005, which focused on getting people into housing, regardless of mental illness or substance abuse problems that could be treated after accommodation was secured.

“The only thing I’ve ever seen that really worked in terms of reducing the number of people on the street was the Housing First policy,” said Glenn Bailey, who directs Crossroads Urban Center, a Salt Lake City food pantry.

“The mistake we made was stopping.”

Utah’s 2018 report said that the number of people sleeping outdoors in the state has nearly doubled since 2016.

State officials cite a combination of factors for the backwards slide, including rising land and housing costs in booming U.S. cities, stagnant wage growth, and a nationwide opioid epidemic.

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