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Utah’s Housing First Initiative is changing the way our nation addresses chronic homelessness. The College of Social Work has played a significant role in this effort.

By Andrew Thompson Landerghini

An amazing thing is happening in the state of Utah that is drawing some major attention from the rest of the nation—in the last 10 years, chronic homelessness has decreased 91 percent. In 2005, there were 1,932 chronically homeless people on Utah’s streets and in homeless shelters. Today, that number is 178.

This remarkable success rate can be attributed to a unique concept dubbed Housing First, where the homeless are given, well, homes. It’s an idea that has been applied sporadically by various agencies in the U.S., but Utah is the first state to implement the initiative across the board. And, as the program reaches its 10-year anniversary, Utah’s effort to end homelessness is being lauded by national media outlets like The New Yorker, “NBC Nightly News,” Los Angeles Times and even “The Daily Show.”

Alumni and students of the University of Utah’s College of Social Work have played a significant role in Utah’s progress toward preventing chronic homelessness. At Palmer Court, which is The Road Home‘s permanent supportive housing development in Salt Lake City, many of the case managers who work with the residents are graduates of the college’s master’s program. Social work students also work at Palmer Court as interns where they can take what they learn in the classroom and apply that knowledge in the field.

“One thing I learned at the University of Utah is this idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Hana Germann, a U graduate student and case manager intern at Palmer Court. “Housing is a very basic need and once we can deal with that then we can work on addiction and mental health and family issues.”

The alumni who work with the Road Home also give back to the college by supervising practicum students—those at a graduate level who are applying their studied theories in a practical, real-world setting.

“It’s always so fun to watch them learn and grow and change their perspective on things,” says Alesia Wilson, a clinical social worker with The Road Home. “Their minds open up to new possibilities and paradigms, and it’s a real joy to watch them progress in that way.”

As Jennifer Nozawa, College of Social Work’s public relations specialist, states, effective collaboration plays a key role in the success of Housing First in Utah. “Hopefully the national attention it’s received will provide a model that can be replicated elsewhere and will propel other cities and states to develop similar programs that will help end chronic homelessness in this country.”

Andrew Thompson Landerghini is a new media specialist and social media manager for University Marketing and Communications