ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Utah has housed nearly all of its chronically homeless people. That's defined as someone with a disabling condition who has been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years. Ten years ago, Utah had about 2,000 chronically homeless people. Today, there are fewer than 200.
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But another 14,000 people just became homeless in Utah this year as another state's rising housing prices are a big part of the problem. Our co-host Kelly McEvers has this report.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We are here in Salt Lake City, Utah. We are in a part of the city that's in downtown. There are a lot of services for homeless people here, and that means there are a lot of homeless people here concentrated in this one area. There's a shelter just up ahead of us. There are, right now, hundreds of people waiting outside to get a free meal. When you here about Utah, you sometimes hear that it's a place that's solved the problem of homelessness. And of course, when you come down to a place like this, you see that's clearly not true.
That shelter we see is called The Road Home.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And this is Jennifer.
MCEVERS: Hi. How are you?
We go inside and meet Jennifer Carter, who's been living there with her two kids who are 5 and 7.
JENNIFER CARTER: Do you guys want to take the elevator or the stairs?
MCEVERS: She shows us a huge room upstairs that's full of steel bunk beds with thin mattresses. Carter says they call them jail beds.
CARTER: This is my bed.
MCEVERS: So you sleep on the bottom, and the kids sleep on the top or vice versa?
CARTER: So yeah. I sleep on the bottom. I let them sleep on the top. Most of the time, my youngest sleeps with me.
MCEVERS: About 200 people sleep in this room - all families - moms, dads, kids. It's cleaning time, so people's stuff is off the floor. Plastic bins full of clothes, shoes, fleece blankets and jars of peanut butter are stacked on the beds. Jennifer Carter has a degree in business management and accounting. She had a job answering phones, but her hours got changed to evenings, and she couldn't afford childcare. So she quit her job and worked odd jobs but couldn't make rent.
CARTER: I tried to talk to the landlord about making an arrangement. I had most of the money, but I still needed a little bit. I was like, can you wait 'til Wednesday? And she told me if I didn't have it by Friday, I had to leave.
MCEVERS: She was evicted. That was about two months ago. Then she moved into The Road Home. It's the second time the family's been homeless this year. The kids keep going to school, but then, when they come home, it's to a shelter.
CARTER: The hardest thing is, like, they are tired because it's loud. There's a lot of people. There's a lot of crying babies. It's loud. They don't get a lot of sleep.
MCEVERS: Are there fights? Like, do people have their disagreements? There must be.
CARTER: Yes, lots.
MCEVERS: So Jennifer Carter has a plan. While the kids are at school, she works the computers and the phones at the shelter.
CARTER: My strategy is, I do 10 job apps a day, and I call 10 of the previous week.
MCEVERS: The thing is, even if she finds a job, it might not be enough.
CARTER: Even - I was making $13.50 an hour. My rent was almost $900 a month for a two-bedroom.
MCEVERS: Plus childcare.
CARTER: They would have to go to daycare for two hours. It was $800 a month for both of them.
MCEVERS: On top of...
CARTER: On top of rent, food, clothes, toiletries, utilities.
MCEVERS: How are you going to do it?
CARTER: I don't really know (laughter).
MCEVERS: Jennifer Carter is in the process of getting assistance called Rapid Rehousing. It's a program that many cities and states are using to give people just enough money to get a place to live. The idea is it costs less to pay a family security deposit and first month's rent than it does to keep them in shelter for months and months. But as housing prices continue to rise in Utah and in most major cities across the U.S., this won't work long-term, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
NAN ROMAN: A better solution would be to have more longer-term rental subsidies, but we don't have them. So Rapid Rehousing is better than leaving people in shelter.
MCEVERS: The real need, Roman says, is simply more affordable places for people to live, and this is a newer problem.
ROMAN: I can say from my own vantage point that when I started working on housing and urban issues in the '70s, we really did not have widespread homelessness at all, and that's because there was an adequate supply of affordable housing.
MCEVERS: So why hasn't - I guess, why hasn't more been done on this front? I mean, what's holding us back?
ROMAN: You know, it's a mystery as to why there's not more attention paid to it. Congress regularly ranks housing as one of the things that they are least interested in pursuing or working on. There doesn't seem to be a lot of political will around it. And it's hard to see with 560,000 homeless people on any given night how bad things have to get before we decide to do something about it.
MCEVERS: The federal government has a plan to end family and youth homelessness in five years. But with housing costs and rents continuing to go up around the country, getting people housed keeps getting harder.
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