One-Shelter-Fits-All: The Marbut-ization of Utah’s Homeless Policy

Please read this story for the full context of my comments: Leading homelessness expert calls Operation Rio Grande a ‘disaster’

Utah, once a shining star for housing first, is now suffering the consequences of the Marbut-ization of it’s homeless policy.

You cannot arrest away homelessness. To make my point, I’ll discuss “Billy”, the most prolific offender in my county: He has been arrested over 170 times since 1995. Has has spent an aggregate of over 10 years behind bars – 30, 60 or 90 days at a time, running up an incarceration bill of over $500,000. Perhaps you have heard of “Million Dollar Murray” in Reno, NV? “Half-Million Dollar Billy” is on-track to beat him. So when will continued incarceration solve Billy’s problems? The 200th arrest, 300th? maybe never? This is why we solve homelessness through housing first, using the principles of harm reduction. It’s good social policy, it’s humane and it saves money.

About me: I have worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, including the past six years starting and running a homeless outreach team. I also advise other communities how to develop effective police responses to homelessness. As a result, I have learned a few lessons along the way (most importantly, housing first works).

I have learned that homeless outreach teams are a perfect model for leveraging law enforcement to end homelessness (please Google my name to read the extensive media coverage of my success stories). As Mr. DeJong states, housing is the only known cure for homelessness).

So should the police even be in the homeless business? In a perfect world, no. But in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be homelessness, poverty or even crime. Until then, my work continues…

As a police officer, I realize that that low-level, quality of life crimes can be reduced but not eliminated. In my city, when officers encounter this situation, we have opportunities to divert the homeless directly into social services, completely bypassing jail. We also have a monthly boutique court docket where those charged are again offered an opportunity to be linked with permanent supportive housing and wrap-around services (in lieu of fines or incarceration). Is it working? I think so. Our monthly docket is down over 50% since we started this docket about three years go. Homeless rates in Tampa also continue to drop.

After spending the last six years studying homelessness, I have discovered what works, what doesn’t work, whom knows their stuff, and whom is a fraud:

Iain DeJong is singularly the greatest mind working in homelessness. I find his strategies to be refreshing, inspiring and effective. They are based upon best, evidence-based practices. In homeless circles, the celebrity-status afforded to Iain exists because he has earned it. Homeless advocates around the country, including myself, patiently await Iain’s visit to our city so that we can be educated, inspired and settle for nothing less than awesome. I also attribute my successes to people such as Iain that are willing to share their exhaustive knowledge with others. Countless other cities around the world compete for Iain’s time; they don’t want to hear what they are doing right – they want to hear what they are doing wrong, and how to fix it.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Robert Marbut. He is a one-man wrecking crew, hiding the homeless throughout the nation by selling his one-shelter-fits-all model. His approach is completely contrary to the best, evidence-based practices. And I applaud the work of homeless advocate Thomas Rebman for exposing Marbut’s questionable models and unverified data.

To Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes: I’d like to suggest that you channel your grievances against Iain into a meaningful dialogue to develop effective solutions. How did this “war of the words” begin? Have I been asleep for 200 years, awakening into some sort of Bizzaro World parallel universe where DeJong is wrong and Marbut is right? Embrace solutions, not problems. Don’t stir the pot – fill the pot. Mind the gap.