"New Year's 2012 I was underneath a cement stairwell in downtown Salt Lake. Homeless." Two years ago Anna Nielsen was in a bad situation. "What went through my mind was I have to keep moving or I'm going to freeze to death." She survived that night by sneaking into a hotel lobby. "I went in found a Coca Cola and ice machine and I snuck behind the Coke machine and settled down in their and slept until 11 the next morning."
When Anna, who was dealing with family, legal and drug addiction issues woke up - her homeless nightmare continued. "It's a hopeless. It's a hopeless situation." "It keeps you in a very horrible place." It was a painful time for the 33 year old. "It is terrifying as a woman on the streets. It is terrifying. I found myself in situations that are very painful and I don't enjoy remembering."
But today, Anna says that life is now behind her. "I was in a parking lot when Gina found me and within one day she had appointments to take care of my medical issues and see someone about housing and start my housing packet." "Gina" is Gina Salazar - a worker at Volunteers of America. Her job is contacting the homeless population. "A lot of times we just pull up and ask if they need water and that starts the engagement." Gina and others often provide basic necessities, like coats and food, to homeless they contact on the streets. And Gina says they try to build trust so they can start the process to get the chronically homeless off the streets. "We connect them to different partner agencies. We give them appointment times and meet up with them." And if the homeless follow up and do what is required they end up in supportive housing facilities like the Kelly Benson Apartments.
Russell Flowers moved into the Salt Lake City apartments shortly after they opened three years ago. "Here in Utah. I've never seen it like that. I have never seen people give like the people do here in Utah." "I'm becoming self sufficient again." Russell worked most of his life in construction in Chicago. Then he says he got divorced and moved to Tennessee. "Big mistake. No work opportunities. No job opportunities." The 61-year-old heard the economy was better in Utah so he packed his bags and came out west. His goal was simple at the time. "Make me some money. Save some money. Improve the quality of my life." He started working, but had health issues and ended up homeless and in the shelter. While his situation seemed hopeless - he says those involved in the fight against homelessness made it hopeful. "They help you find the things you need. Like housing. They help you get medical care." Today Russell lives in a one room apartment near 3100 South and 3600 West and works part time at the front desk. "It humbles you and makes you grateful."
Gordon Walker, the Director of Utah's Housing & Community Development, says while it may not seem like it - the same thing that is saving Russell from the streets is also saving society a lot of money. "If we house people it costs us about 12,000 dollars per year. If we don't house individuals it costs us about 20,000 dollars per year." Walker says if you really think about the services the homeless use you can understand how the money starts to add up. "A chronically homeless person does not have insurance and does not participate in preventative medicine. They take an ambulance to the emergency center and often they spend the night and the health care costs are expensive." "We found, through research, that it was more cost effective and saved money by housing these individuals and giving them services than if we left them on the street. And certainly it is the humane thing to do." Walker says Utah changed the way it addressed chronic homelessness about ten years ago. "Before we started this program, we would ask people to change their lives before we would give them housing. Now we give them housing and hope they change their lives." Walker explains that includes counseling, treatment and job training. "We are working with the department of workforce services to help bring these people back to full productivity in society."
Walker says the Housing First program gets people into stable housing so they have a chance to get help, get control and get a job. And he says the Rapid Re-Housing program prevents homelessness or quickly gets people re-housed and stabilized. Walker says it's not a free ride, rather, an opportunity. And it is an effort that is offered here in Utah, but not in other places in the country. "Were really the only state that has gone as far as this."
Walker says chronic homelessness in Utah has decreased 72 percent since 2005. And the most recent research say overall homelessness in Utah is down 10 percent in 2014. Zach Bale with Volunteers of America says "We have weeks when we move a number of people off the streets." He says it is not always easy, but always rewarding when they help someone begin to improve their life. "We see a lot of grand successes."
And while there are hundreds out there who are still homeless and seem to be helpless. There are also hundreds like Anna. "People who want to get off drugs and get out of the situation and they just need a helping hand." And she should know. She says she is off the streets, off drugs, in counseling and just a week or two away from getting into an apartment and re-starting her life. "I'm so excited." "When I'm ready, I have a job offer."
Walker says Utah most likely will not wipe out chronic homelessness by 2015, but that is not going to stop him and others from working toward that goal. "And when we hit our ten year goal, if we haven't ended chronic homelessness - we will keep trying."
Walker and others say this is working in Utah because of all the partner agencies working together. Those agencies include Salt Lake City Housing Authority, Salt Lake County Housing Authority, The Road Home, Volunteers of America, Fourth Street Clinic, First Step House, Catholic Community Services, YWCA of Salt Lake City, Community Action Program and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Walker says all the agencies work hard and make it possible to deal with the chronically homeless issue. When asked to describe the efforts of LDS Church he said. "They are terrific partner in every way shape and form. They have provided all of the furniture in the buildings we have built." He says the LDS Church works "behind the scenes" but is "right there with you." And he says because it is such a big part of the Utah and Salt Lake communities the LDS Church has "a strong interest in ending homelessness and providing for the poor." Walker says many of the other organizations are more hands on. Some are more involved in feeding the homeless. He says others track people and work directly with them to get them through a system that gets them into counseling and treatment and then into a home. "We know most of these individuals by name. We know where they are. We will never stop asking and helping them."
If you want to get involved in helping the homeless you can contact any of the organizations mentioned in the story.