Utah Is Not the Only Approach to Addressing Homelessness

Posted on July 25, 2018

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Rae Trotta (LinkedIn and World Wide Web) is the founder of Trotta Consulting. Trotta Consulting specializes in community engagement and strategy to prevent and address homelessness at the community level.


Imagine your city sitting down with a therapist or a life coach to talk about homelessness. Your city would be reassured of two things:

  • You’re not alone.
  • Your frustration is normal.

Your session might close with an analogy, that acknowledges the reality of your situation and leaves you feeling empowered to make a change.

In relationship to homelessness, cities are running a relay race. Of those currently running this race, it is common to find cities out of breath and mystified in a search for solutions.

I am a consultant specializing in community engagement and homelessness. My work is helping cities decide whether they are race ready, and if not, what steps can be taken to get there. When cities share their approaches to homelessness, I find a lot of energetic starts and many dead ends.

Cities are challenged. After getting started – admitting the problem and devoting resources to explore solutions – many find themselves hitting a dead end.

I want to share four of the most frequently asked questions that I hear as cities define their approach to homelessness..

Have you heard about Utah!?

images-1Attention grabbing headlines want you to believe it, but Utah has not solved homelessness. Utah was one of the first states to embrace Housing First. This approach houses an individual, ends their homelessness, and provides a supportive platform to incrementally address the person’s other needs – i.e. health, employment, etc. When homeless individuals are provided housing, support, and job-readiness, we are closer to supporting an individual to sustain more-healthy and more-housed lives.

Utah’s success has convinced other local governments to consider Housing First. However, even with increased options for housing, Utah has shelters with mounting waiting lists for limited beds.  While responding to homelessness with one unit of housing, another individual is entering the homeless cycle by being evicted from their apartment, discharged from the hospital, or being released from jail.

Local governments should learn from the success of Utah, while realizing it is only one piece of the puzzle.

What are we doing?

Most city departments operate independently of each other, which makes it difficult to track what each is doing on important issues such as homelessness. An early step in developing a strategy for defining an approach to homelessness is understanding your current efforts.

A thoughtful approach to addressing homeless is crucial as your strategy will have a lasting impact on your community and others. In fact, the national, state, and local government response to homelessness will have lasting effects on future funding and programming.

For example, some cities are devoting significant funds in responding to homelessness through policing and clean up. The two approaches are a revolving-wheel; issues are addressed but real change does not always occur.

I want you to think about how your city would answer these questions – How is your city addressing homeless? How does your response impact staff? How do you know if your efforts are being successful?

Your response to the questions should guide your future action.

When/why should I hire a specialist?  

Your intern could “Google” homelessness. You could assign homelessness to a star employee, and prioritize it as their 108th to-do item. Of course, these approaches aren’t sustainable. Devoting resources to analyzing the impact of homelessness across your organization will provide an opportunity to formulate new responses.  Part of your new response will be accessing new resources – such as subject matter experts.

Rather than starting the next idea, that looks and feels cooler than the last, reach out for guidance. Complete an analysis of your past experiences and other government partners experience to help you refine and reformulate. Hiring a specialist, along with understanding your history of approaches to homelessness, will guide you in developing a concrete assessment and strategy. This will assure that your newly created Homelessness Task Force doesn’t get added to the list of start and stop efforts.

How can I compete with negative storylines?

Education, promotion, and print will help develop a more positive story line. Focused investment in the first two areas is crucial.

You cannot control the ‘print’. Print is the newspaper story and the informal communication in the community. Success with educating and promoting an approach to homelessness will assist in a positive story line.

Here’s how it happens:

Educate your elected officials and staff: Empower your team with facts – what does homelessness look like in your community, what are the numbers, experiences, and responses locally and regionally. Provide this information to your council, in easily digestible forms, and they’ll advance the discussion by seeking out other solutions by talking with their colleagues, attending conference presentations on homelessness, and interacting with non-profits.

Promote your successes: Your history with homelessness tells a story. Tell your story of trying to get there.

Does your city support affordable housing? Do you support social services? What might you try that’s new – are you conducting an organizational assessment, studying service gaps, participating in coalitions?

Tell these stories, and give the press and staff something positive to read.

Printnever underestimate its power: Everything you do shapes a narrative. Lead with positivity – most of us have experienced a councilor saying something off-the-cuff, or a police officer having a negative interaction with a homeless individual.

When you have success with a new approach such as training your police to interact with homelessness in a meaningful way, then make sure that your residents and local media know about it. Without sharing your storyline, negativity will dominate the narrative.

Defining your city’s role in homelessness can be an energizing process. Be willing to run the race – you will achieve significant results. Cities alone aren’t responsible for ending homelessness; however, cities are uniquely equipped to respond in new and holisitic ways.

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