BLOG: What can Oregon learn from Utah's success?

BLOG: What can Oregon learn from Utah's success?

When Utah's Lloyd Pendleton came to Portland in November to talk about his state's nationally acclaimed program to address chronic homelessness, the local reactions basically fell into three not exactly complementary categories:
  • We should immediately replicate everything Utah did.
  • What Utah did will never work here, and
  • We're already doing all that.

The truth is, all three reactions, to some degree, are right. There are many aspects of Utah's successful 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, led by Mr. Pendleton, that we could and should replicate here in Portland. And we need to recognize that Oregon and Utah – and Portland and Salt Lake – are different. I am certain that even Mr. Pendleton would say we need to build a program that learns from Utah, but reflects the values and diversity of our own community. 

Most importantly, however, we are not starting from zero. Portland has tremendous social service providers who have been at the front line serving the homeless community for decades. Every day, I see the work of Central City Concern, New Avenues for Youth, Transitions Projects, JOIN, Blanchet House, Salvation Army and many others. All of these groups are resourceful and innovative, and many operate programs very similar to those that have worked in Utah, including the celebrated "Housing First" model. There is also the new "A Home for Everyone" framework created by the city of Portland and Multnomah County to tackle the challenge together. I know the homelessness crisis we face today would be much worse without these organizations. 

That said, there is a lot to learn from Mr. Pendleton and Utah's experience. When I think about his presentation several weeks later, what comes to mind for me are not details about individual programs but, rather, the broader values and direction that drove Utah's success. Let me share the key learnings that have stayed with me: 

State leadership. In Utah, the state took the lead in developing, resourcing and implementing a 10-year plan to end homelessness, and they stuck with it. In Oregon, the plan was driven by local government, with apparently little involvement from the state, and, although there was some success, the enthusiasm for implementing the program waned over the years. Could bringing the state to the table in a broader, leadership role sharpen focus and collaboration, as it did in Utah? 

One visionary leader. Utah identified one strong, established voice for its efforts in Lloyd Pendleton. A former business executive, he was "loaned" to the state by the LDS church to implement Utah's program to end chronic homelessness.  He was the governor's chief advisor and implementer for programs addressing homelessness and, although unpaid, he had the reputation and gravitas to bring people to the table and keep them there. He also had license to "uninvite" stakeholders who could not sign on to the broader consensus strategy.    

Focus. Recognizing that the issue of homeless is broad and multifaceted, Utah chose to build its initial model around one demographic, the chronically homeless, who comprised about 14 percent of the state's overall homeless count in 2005. They didn't walk away from serving others, but the primary focus of their "Housing First" effort was on the chronically homeless population, which they reasoned was a major contributor to the financial costs associated with homelessness. In Portland and Multnomah County last year, we saw that focused approach work with the federally driven effort to end veterans' homelessness. Can we learn from that and Utah's example by choosing another demographic for intense focus, gaining success, then moving to another...and so on? 

Start small; act now. In addressing our community, Mr. Pendleton, in his no-nonsense way, advised us to "get a pilot going and make it happen now." Utah began with "low-cost, low-risk" programs, scaling them bigger if they worked and setting them aside if they did not. They didn't wait for a grand plan; they tried ideas out. They also insisted on a solutions-oriented mindset, focusing on how to overcome barriers rather than be held back by them. 

Housing and services. Mr. Pendleton stressed that housing is the key. Utah's Housing First model (which agencies like JOIN do here in Portland) turned the traditional model on its head by putting people into permanent housing without running them first through transitional programs or rehabilitation services. Mr. Pendleton's program worked with landlords to make apartments available, and new affordable housing was developed through public programs. At the same time, shelters were not abandoned. Rather, shelter stays were limited and the clients moved to permanent housing within a month or two. Utah believed no one should have to sleep on the street, and even today there is sufficient shelter capacity to take care of everyone who needs a bed. In Portland, despite millions invested in affordable housing, we are still short on permanent housing and we actually saw a decrease in shelter beds. The result: people are forced to sleep outside. 

Broad community support. Utah's efforts brought the broad community to the table: government, business, social service providers, faith leaders, neighborhood groups, landlords and many others, with Mr. Pendleton, as the governor's designate, as the clear leader.   

Funding. Clearly, adequate funding is key to addressing the homelessness crisis. But from what Mr. Pendleton said, it does not sound like Utah suddenly created a vast new revenue source for their programs. Rather, they reprioritized what they were doing and put money into programs that would yield the best results, and they jettisoned programs that didn't make the grade or map into the shared vision. 

We don't want to create an impression that nothing is happening here in Portland. In fact, we have seen considerable movement over the last few months. Most importantly, shelter capacity has grown so fewer people are sleeping on the street, and as a community, we are more united than ever before in seeing that this is an issue we need to address together.    

We were very lucky to have Mr. Pendleton here in Portland, and I want to thank everyone who participated in the conversations we had with him. I took away a lot, and I hope everyone else did too. If you missed our forum with Lloyd Pendleton, watch the video below.