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Utah official briefs committee on successes and challenges of "Housing First" model

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, speaks on the Senate floor at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer
/
AP
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, speaks on the Senate floor at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Lawmakers on the Legislature's housing committee heard from a government official in Utah on Friday about how that state's housing “first program” has dramatically cut homelessness.

The housing first model is a simple concept: remove barriers to housing, and people will succeed. That can mean providing permanent housing without restrictions, such as sobriety requirements. It also often involves offering mental health counseling to residents to help them stay housed.

In Utah, the program has been successful: from 2005 to 2015, the state cut its unhoused population by more than 90 percent. There have been increases since then, but not nearly as much as in Maine, where federal data shows homelessness increased by 113 percent in just the last two years.

Utah homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said housing first has worked thanks to heavy investment, including $55 million dollars for the creation of affordable housing. But housing alone doesn't solve the problem, he told the committee.

"We celebrated for a number of years getting people into housing, the antithesis of homelessness is housing," he told the committee. "But we didn't follow through with programming or sufficient resources to deal with the core issues that people face."

Maine could be on the brink of adopting its own statewide program. Gov. Janet Mills said she supported a bill looking to do just that during her budget address in February, calling it a cost-effective solution to homelessness. The line received sustained applause.

"The time for this legislation has come," she said then. "Tonight, I call on the Legislature to send that bill to my desk. I will sign it."

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.