“Housing First” is Utah’s slogan for its program to put chronically homeless people in permanent supportive housing. The original slogan, “Housing First, Employment Second” has been abbreviated because employment often comes later than second, if it comes at all. Yet, the benefits of housing first, even if it doesn’t led to employment have proven to be both a humane and economical way to help chronically homeless people secure long term homes.
Palmer Court used to be a swank motel a few blocks from downtown Salt Lake City. The lobby is three stories tall; a 1960’s era framed photo in the staff conference room shows Doris Day languishing at the pool. Now, the neighborhood is past its glory, the pool has been filled in, and the motel rooms have been converted into 281 apartments, mostly studios. Banquet rooms have been repurposed as staff offices, classrooms, a fitness center, and other support spaces. The architect in me was excited to see such an appropriate reuse.
Many of the 278 adults and 77 children who live in Palmer House have not had a consistent address in years. In order to qualify for admission, a person has to be homeless for more than a year, (or four episodes in three years). Most have a physical or mental disability, substance abuse, or other chronic condition that makes it difficult to function independently. The facility is owned by the Road Home, a non-profit that provides services to the homeless. Other organizations work with the Road Home to provide vocational, employment, medical, childcare, and social services.
Kelli Bowers, Director of Supportive Services, toured me through the facility. “Palmer Court has a high level of support. If people just need housing, the Road Home has local apartments they ‘sublease’ to individuals and families who cannot get market housing. People here need much more.” Besides human services, Palmer Court helps people get the ‘stuff’ of independent living. The LDS church provides basic furnishings, and a handmade quilt, to people moving into Palmer Court. Organizations also donate accessories and cleaning supplies.
Karen Grenko, Property Manager, oversees maintaining the facility. “Our challenge is to help people learn to be good tenants, while understanding that they are already in housing of last resort. Kelli and I play good cop/bad cop. People here will test the system, but they are are keen to keep what they have. They come around before eviction.”
Kelli added, “The residents lack trust. When they see us keep trying to work things out with them, that is the beginning of trust.”
Mary McConaughy is an employment specialist for the State of Utah who is based in Palmer Court. “Everybody here is at a different point in their journey. Some people take a year or more just to be settled Almost everyone who does work participates in ‘supportive employment’ which include onsite work positions like cleaning the public areas or staffing the laundry room. We often take positions that would be 1 or 2 FTE’s and split them up into smaller parcels so people have meaningful work every week. They may work up to supportive employment outside the facility, and eventually, private workplace jobs.”
After meeting with Kelli, Karen, and Mary I had a deeper understanding of the term ‘permanent supportive housing’. Most Palmer House residents will need economic and social support for their entire lives. It is a credit to the Road Home and the State of Utah that their inability to function independently does not deny them the dignity and security that comes from having a permanent address – a place they can call home.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Very carefully.” – Karen Grenko
“I don’t have a quick answer. There is no quick answer. I read about a place in the Netherlands where a community of families take in the weaker people of the community, people with mental health issues, and care for them in a family setting. That seems like such a good direction.” – Mary McConaughy
“I hope we become better stewards of the earth by taking better care of the earth and its inhabitants instead of taking advantage of them.
“I believe the people I serve are heroes. I don’t know if I could go through what they have gone through, or do what they have done.” – Kelli Bowers