The following is a transcript of an investigative report on Full Measure News. Click on the link at the end of the transcript to watch the video story.
It’s estimated there are more than a half million homeless people living on America’s streets. With the problem growing, and everyone looking for answers, one city, Salt Lake City, Utah thought it had found a solution. In fact, some claimed it had managed to solve its homeless problem. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the whole story. Scott Thuman found out what really happened.
Scott Thuman: All across the country, from the East Coast, to the streets of California's biggest cities, visible homelessness is on the rise.
It's the same story here, on a warm day in early March, in Salt Lake City.
Every person with a different story, different reason for being homeless.
(Scott walks around homeless camp, talks to homeless people)
Scott: How long have you been here in Salt Lake?
Woman 1: I was on the streets basically since I was 14.
Scott: And how old are you now?
Woman 1: 32.
Scott: It's a long time.
Woman 1: I had a really bad childhood, you know.
Woman 2: I've been homeless since I was 14 but I've been born and raised here in Utah.
Scott: Oh, you have?
Woman 2: Yeah.
Scott: You've seen a lot of change over the years.
Woman 2: Yeah. It's gotten worse.
Scott: What makes Salt Lake's experience unique is that this place was supposed to have found a solution.
In fact, just a few years ago, some were breathlessly proclaiming the city had ended homelessness.
Jon Stewart: Nobody likes homelessness - I'm very controversial, least of all the homeless. But what can be done? Salt Lake City, Utah, has a plan that will blow your mind.
Lloyd Pendleton: We did it by giving homes to homeless people.
Reporter: "Who? You did what?"
Pendleton: We gave homes to the homeless. Yeah, it's simple, you give them housing, and you end homelessness.
Scott: That's Lloyd Pendelton, the man behind a bold ten year plan started in 2005 focusing tens of millions of dollars of state, county and city resources on building more than 500 homes with rents as low as $50 a month. It did drastically lower the number of people living on the street, but the headlines were also full of hype.
Glen Bailey: Rents are going up everywhere.
Scott: As executive director of a charity that provides food and clothing, Glen Bailey has seen the problems ebb and flow over the years. He's never seen them go away.
Scott: Years ago, there were a lot of headlines that Salt Lake City has really, very effectively, almost kind of eradicated the problem of homelessness.
Bailey: Everybody got big yucks of that, but it just wasn't true. The other thing that happened is a lot of those efforts that were being made at that time kind of stalled out. They built five different buildings. They opened them, staffed them, they were running them, but we didn't build anymore.
Scott: What did get built: high end, high priced housing.
Bailey: There is one right here, that's brand new. There is one right behind me, that is about to come on line, that they're still working on and none of those apartment complexes have anything that's affordable to anybody that uses our services. Not even close. They're all luxury market rate apartments and that's going on all over the city.
Erin Mendenhall: We have more homeless people visible on our streets than we've ever had in our history.
Scott: Salt Lake's new Democrat Mayor, Erin Mendenhall, blames the skyrocketing cost of living and the effects of the opioid crisis.
Mendenhall: They created a perfect storm. That and healthcare access, lack of mental health access, coming together, with market forces driving up our population here locally. Consuming housing at a rate that housing was not being produced, has I think pushed people onto our streets and into our shelter situations, unlike we'd ever seen before.
Scott: And that has prompted a new approach.
Mendenhall: We continue to try to put people into housing first. Don't require people to get sober or to have a job before they can have secure housing. It's a fundamental tenant to be able to move forward with all the other parts of your life when you know where you can sleep at night. We're going to continue to do that, despite the difficulty in finding available housing.
Scott: And her city is putting millions into the effort. In the last six months, opening three purpose built shelters, one for men, one for couples and families and one just for women, like Tamera, who spent over a year on the streets.
Scott: Just describe for me what life was like before you got here?
Tamera: I was hungry, cold, afraid.
Scott: Afraid of what?
Tamera: Life. People. I had people throw firecrackers on me when I was on the street. Be asleep and somebody throw a firecracker because they thought it was funny. You hear everybody, ah, ha, ha, ha. Not funny.
Scott: Part of the strategy, a police squad focused specifically on getting to know the homeless and their problems. And social workers not waiting in offices.
Scott: On this day, and most, the patrols are friendly. Though that's not to say there aren't tensions.
(police officer talks to homeless man)
Man: You come and talk to me like I'm sort of bitch?
Officer: That's not how I'm talking to you. You don't have to talk with me, because no one's in trouble.
Scott: Which flared in January during protests south side of City Hall.
Scott: Michelle Flynn is executive director of the "Road Home", which runs two Salt Lake shelters.
Scott: You said housing first?
Scott: That's the bottom line?
Flynn: People need their home. In order to be able to take a deep breath and even think about, how can I keep my job, how can I get my kids enrolled in school, and have a room where they can study, and do their homework, and be able to concentrate on that, and find a daycare that's affordable and convenient to me where I am living. You need to be in your own home. It doesn't mean housing only. What we need to do is get people out of the state of being homeless as quickly as possible and then work to make those connections with all those community resources.
Scott: Here they offer everything under one roof. From medical and mental healthcare to job placement. And Tamera says, something just as important.
Tamera: My Christmas here was the best Christmas I ever had in ten years. They got us a catered dinner, steak, mashed potatoes, milk, a salad.
Scott: How long had it been since you'd had a day like that?
Tamera: Years. Years. Years
Scott: It sounds like everyone here has given you more than just a place to sleep or given you clothes. It sounds like they've given you hope.
Tamera: Yeah. Like love.
Scott: It has been, and still is, a learning process for a city that realized it fell short the first time it claimed victory. A mistake, it doesn't plan to repeat.
Sharyl (on-camera): After Scott returned from Salt Lake City, coronavirus factored into the equation. By mid-April, nearly 100 men had tested positive for the virus at one of the homeless resources centers Scott visited, and that meant they had to stop accepting new people.