In one form or another, homeless people will always be among us. A variety of factors from unemployment to mental and physical illnesses will see to that. But if chronic homelessness were to disappear as a social condition, that would be a major step forward for communities along the Wasatch Front.
A lot of experts say that is an achievable condition. As news reports related this week, Utah officials say the number of chronic homeless people in Utah has dropped 72 percent since 2005, and 9 percent over the last year alone. A statewide goal of eliminating chronic, long-term homelessness by 2015 is within grasp.
That would not mean an end to the need for programs that assist the homeless, nor an end to the need for volunteers, generous donors or the basic humanity of caring for the plight of a neighbor. It would, however, signal that a coordinated effort among local governments and nonprofit agencies, started roughly seven years ago, is working.
First, it is important to understand the definition of chronic homelessness. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines it as someone who has been continuously homeless for more than one year. Advocates say a lot of people spend 300 or more days a year without a permanent shelter but don't technically qualify for the extensive services available to the chronic homeless. In fact, figures show that the total number of homeless in Utah is on the upswing, rising by 13 percent over the past year. That is perhaps to be expected in a state where the population is growing and where, as in the rest of the nation, economic growth has been slow.
But the initiative to end chronic homelessness, even under the current definition, shows that help is available and the community will not allow people to linger in a state of despair indefinitely.
In Utah, the chronically homeless qualify for permanent housing in a situation in which they have access to the services they need, whether this involves care for illnesses of a physical or mental nature, help to get off drugs or job training. This has allowed people who had wandered the streets for years to regain a sense of self-respect as they get their lives in order. About a quarter of the people in such housing now have part-time jobs.
These programs make far more sense than having the same core group of long-term homeless people using temporary shelters again and again with little chance of getting the help they need. It frees up those shelters for people who may need them temporarily while getting their lives in order.
We contrast this with the recent case in Columbus, Ga., of a homeless man who threw a brick through the glass door of a courthouse just so he could be arrested and experience the relative comfort of a jail bed. The story is reminiscent of the famous O. Henry story, "The cop and the anthem."
Homelessness comes in many forms and has many root causes. Above all, however, it is a condition affecting real flesh-and-blood people; neighbors who need a chance to once again make it on their own. Utah's concerted efforts are commendable and should continue.