On November 2nd the LDS Church announced that it will be donating $10 million to a Salt Lake City group called Shelter the Homeless. The donation will “contribute to the construction and development of additional housing in the Salt Lake valley for those in great need,” and states that the donation comes from the Church’s Humanitarian Aid Fund.

Despite the black eye of spending at least $1.5 billion on a high-end mall across from the Salt Lake Temple, the Church has a decent track record of helping to address Salt Lake’s homeless situation over the years, donating “more than $52 million over the past decade to nine groups that serve the homeless in the Salt Lake Valley,” according to the Deseret News. Judging from my experience working with homeless shelters and food kitchens in both Salt Lake City and Ogden, I’d guess that number understates the aid provided by the Church through both official and unofficial channels. I’m aware of several donations provided on short notice, with no fanfare, that almost certainly didn’t rise to the level of being reported in those numbers.

I’m not going to let the Church off the hook for spending an obscene $1.5 billion on a mall when so much good could have been done with that money, but this donation is a big deal for a simple reason: transitional, affordable housing has proven to be quite effective in helping prevent chronic homelessness, and Salt Lake City’s pool of affordable housing has dwindled to practically nothing over the past several years. This donation can make a real difference in overcoming that challenge.

According to an NPR article a couple of years ago about Salt Lake City’s success in combating chronic homelessness, those who are chronically homeless are defined as those “who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a ‘disabling condition’ that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness.” Studies have shown that providing the chronically homeless a stable home – no questions asked – significantly decreases the costs to the community to treat them. It also provides the most effective stepping stone to breaking the cycle that kept the people on the street to begin with. Homeless shelters are an expensive method of housing the homeless long-term, and affordable housing can help to not only alleviate pressure on shelters, allowing them to focus on those with short-term homelessness, it can also free up funds that can be used to provide detox, health care, and other services to the homeless population, reducing long-term homelessness overall.

According to an April 2016 article in The Atlantic:

Nationally, the average monthly cost of serving a family in an emergency shelter is $4,819. Providing them with a voucher for housing, on the other hand, is just $1,162. Shelters might be good for emergencies, but does having a bed to sleep in mean that someone has a home?

And quality can be an issue for these shelters: Many homeless people have told advocates trying to get them off the streets that they avoid shelters if they possibly can. They’ve heard about bad experiences there, or have themselves suffered through violence, theft, or other trauma in these ostensibly safer spaces.

Mother Jones also ran an incredible article, called “The Shockingly Simple, Surprisingly Cost-Effective Way to End Homelessness” about this effort (termed “Housing First” because, rather than provide housing to those who “prequalify”, it seeks to first provide housing and then provide services to assist the person in addressing root causes of their homelessness, which can be more easily achieved in a stable environment where service providers can more easily find the aid recipients, rather than combing various shelters looking for them each night). The article points out several key facts, which I’ll cover here, but I recommend you read the full article:

The vast majority, 85 percent, of the nation’s estimated 580,000 homeless are of the temporary variety, mainly men but also women and whole families who spend relatively short periods of time sleeping in shelters or cars, then get their lives together and, despite an economy increasingly stacked against them, find a place to live, somehow. However, the remaining 15 percent, the chronically homeless, fill up the shelters night after night and spend a lot of time in emergency rooms and jails. This is expensive—costing between $30,000 and $50,000 per person per year according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Going from homelessness into a home changes a person’s psychological identity from outcast to member of the community

Then Pendleton called a meeting of “all the dogs in the fight” and announced that they were going to run a Housing First trial in Salt Lake City. He told them to come up with the names of 25 chronically homeless people, “the worst of the worst,” and they were going to give them apartments scattered around the city, no questions asked. If it worked for them, it would work for everybody.

“I didn’t want any ‘creaming,’” Pendleton said. “We needed to be able to trust the results.”

So they did it. They ended up with 17 people and gave them apartments, health care, and services. They took people without a home and made them part of a neighborhood. And it worked, surprisingly well. After nearly two years, 14 were still in their apartments (the other three died), and they are still there today. They haven’t caused problems for themselves or their neighbors, Pendleton says.

Utah found that giving people supportive housing cost the system about half as much as leaving the homeless to live on the street.

I could go on and on. Really, you should read the entire article. It’ll give you an idea as to why this announcement from the Church is such a big deal. Affordable housing is the key to helping the homeless gain their dignity and transition from the street to a better life.