Lloyd Pendleton grew up on a ranch in rural Utah, an upbringing that taught him values like rugged individualism and self-reliance. When Pendleton saw a homeless person on the street during visits to Salt Lake City, he recalled wondering why they didn’t just get a job.
This kind of thinking is so prevalent in the United States, a country with more than 500,000 homeless people, a quarter of them children, that it was once named the most pervasive myth about homelessness. Pendleton’s thinking didn’t budge until later in life.
After a stint at Ford Motors, he got a job with the Mormon church, where he was offered the opportunity to help out with the state’s largest center for homelessness. He eventually became the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force. “I became aware of this new approach called the ‘harm reduction model,'” Pendleton told the audience at TEDMED in Palm Springs, CA, last week. “They were passing out clean needles and condoms, which I initially thought was a stupid idea.”
Harm reduction models focus on minimizing the negative consequences associated with substance use by negotiating with individuals rather than taking a judgmental stance. Some of the key tenets involve treating people with dignity and respect, as well as giving them a voice. Previous models involved abstinence-related programs and services.
Pendleton’s views changed when he attended a conference back in 2003, and heard about some of the outcomes associated with the Housing First (a related idea that prioritizes providing the homeless with permanent housing as quickly as possible). Homeless people were rehoused, he said, with some allowances around drinking and drugs, and were given case managers who offered a range of support services to help them adjust. “Despite my initial low expectations, 85% of people were housed in 12 months,” Pendleton said. That saves the state a lot of money: HUD estimates that the annual is cost between $30,000 and $50,000 per person because of services like emergency room visits.
Pendleton saw an opportunity to develop a similar initiative in Utah, and he immediately began contacting affordable housing organizations. Some of the executives he heard from had concerns about constructing 100 building units for homeless people in a single location, so Pendleton opted to develop a pilot to test the idea by using existing units dotted around Salt Lake City. He debated with his team about whether to select the most “high-functioning individuals,” or those who were chronically homeless, meaning that they had lived on the streets for more than a year or four times in the past three years. Many had also struggled with mental illness or physical disability. “We decided to pick the latter because we knew we could learn the most,” he said. Twenty-two months later, Pendleton reported, all 17 individuals from the first group were still housed.
“We became believers and built hundreds of units,” Pendleton said. By 2015, the initiative hit the headlines with Utah reporting that it had reduced its chronic homeless population by 91%. The numbers dropped from 2,000 people in 2005, to fewer than 200 now.
Along his 10-year journey helping the homeless in Utah, Pendleton met people who struggled to heat a can of beans in their new kitchens because they were so used to camping stoves. Others spent months on the floor before opting to sleep in a bed. One man named Donald told his case manager that when asked why his apartment was freezing, he said he didn’t know how to use the thermostat and that he hadn’t seen his sister in 25 years (she thought he was dead). “She was happy to learn otherwise,” Pendleton said.
Pendleton has completely changed his tune in how he approaches and thinks about homelessness in America. “When you listen to someone’s story from an open heart and walk in their shoes,” he said, “you can’t help but love and care for them and want to serve them.”