IT'S EARLY DECEMBER, 10:30 in the morning, and Rene Zepeda is driving a Volunteers of America minivan around Salt Lake City, looking for reclusive homeless people, those camping out next to the railroad tracks or down by the river or up in the foothills. The winter has been unseasonably warm so far—it's 60 degrees today—but the cold weather is coming and the van is stacked with sleeping bags, warm coats, thermal underwear, socks, boots, hats, hand warmers, protein bars, nutrition drinks, canned goods. By the end of the day, Rene says, it will all be gone.
These supplies make life a little easier for people who live outside, but Rene's main goal is to develop a relationship of trust with them, and act as a bridge to get them off the street. "I want to get them into homes," Rene says. "I tell them, 'I'm working for you. I want to get you out of the homeless situation.'"
And he does. He and all the other people who work with the homeless here have perhaps the best track record in the country. In the past nine years, Utah has decreased the number of homeless by 72 percent—largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached. It's a program, or more accurately a philosophy, called Housing First.