Can the free market help solve homelessness in Utah?

The following op-ed, written by our policy director Michael Melendez, was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Remember that time a couple years ago when the whole country thought that Utah solved chronic homelessness?

In light of the intense debate that has recently occurred regarding new homeless shelters, that appears to have been “fake news.” Unfortunately, Utah’s counting methods ended up giving everyone the wrong impression.

Fast forward to this year, where the Utah Legislature allocated $20 million to help fund the building of new homeless shelters, the locations of which spurred contentious debate (to put it lightly). All this disagreement among those trying to influence and decide how taxpayer resources are used to address this important issue may leave one wondering if there is a role for the free market and private charity to play

And it may surprise you, but there are innovative ideas and programs being implemented throughout the country, some  rely on private charity, and others that only require government reducing regulation to allow struggling members of society to empower themselves.

First off, we can work on increasing opportunities for the poor to have decently paying jobs by actively reducing existing barriers to employment. Utah continues to be one of the highest states on the scale of regulatory and licensing barriers for a variety of jobs, many of which involve low-skilled work. Eliminating or reducing these occupational licenses would be a real help for those who simply want to work.

Second, the time has come to reduce the regulations around innovative housing models like “tiny homes.” Whether it’s a private or public project, this ground-breaking model needs to gain greater acceptance in our state. Across the country we can find numerous examples of free and reduced cost housing communities which are not only providing a place for the homeless to live, but also drastically reducing the expense for taxpayers. Tiny homes are a proven alternative to low-income apartment complexes and would provide excellent accommodations for the portion of homeless Utahns who desire a simplified lifestyle.

Apart from chronic homelessness, some members of our community simply need help getting back on their feet. That’s where ideas like NoAppFee.com come into play. This online platform matches potential renters with properties for which they qualify. NoAppFee.com removes the burden of application fees and greatly reduces the cost of finding a place to rent. Property owners can list on the site for free and use the system to conduct necessary checks on potential tenants.

In the same vein we must ensure that so-called “Good Landlord” programs do not prevent former criminals from making progress on reintegrating with society. Background checks shouldn’t rule out ex-convicts automatically from affordable housing opportunities, and landlords who want to rent to people with past criminal histories should be free to do so without paying a penalty. Similarly, the Utah Legislature eliminated the check-off box regarding previous criminal convictions on most government job applications, giving ex-convicts a chance at gaining meaningful employment.

Another innovative idea that brings temporary relief to those displaced by circumstances out of their control involves short-term rentals. Services like Airbnb currently offer disaster relief housing—an effective way to help those who find themselves temporarily homeless, connecting them with members of the community who want to open their homes to assist.

Additionally, a real commitment is needed to the hard work of not only getting people off the streets, but helping them to reach their full potential and move on with their lives. The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City is a great example of a private non-profit helping people overcome addiction, find work, and rebuild connections with family and community. They accomplish this without any taxpayer funding by employing their “students” in businesses that the Academy runs, including a food truck and moving company. Engagement with services shouldn’t always be required for homeless individuals to receive housing initially, but when appropriate, actual requirements that encourage personal improvement and accountability can be phased in over time.

Engagement with services shouldn’t always be required for homeless individuals to receive housing initially, but when appropriate, actual requirements that encourage personal improvement and accountability can be phased in over time.

We also need to take special care to identify and offer the proper help to those with mental health issues, especially veterans who may suffer lifelong mental trauma. Lastly, let’s make sure we don’t raise taxes on food, which disproportionately hurts the poor and needy.

Homelessness is a complex, multi-faceted issue that will take entire communities working together—no one is denying that. Let’s start treating it that way by allowing market forces to lead toward viable solutions that can benefit all.