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Compared to Europe, much of America has a strongly conservative political culture – few places more so than Utah, where “only 15 per cent of residents identify as liberal.” Nevertheless, the Beehive State is home to a hugely successful programme to help the homeless.

John Stoehr tells all in an inspiring article for the American Conservative:

“In 2005, the Republican administration of Gov. Jon Huntsman introduced a “centrally led and locally developed” strategy to defeat long-term homelessness. Called Housing Works, the program began with 17 people who had lived on the streets at least once in the previous year. The goal was to lead them to self-sufficiency, but they kept the housing even if they failed to pull their lives together.”

That’s right, they helped the homeless by giving them homes. This might seem a little bit liberal, even socialist – but there are some genuinely conservative principles at work here. First of all, common sense:

“The model for Utah’s program took shape years earlier in New York City. Clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis had grown frustrated with orthodox methods that called for the homeless to overcome addiction, seek treatment for mental illness, and find work before getting housed. Tsemberis realized none of that was possible without housing first.”

In devising the Housing Works programme in Utah, Tsemberis was determined to learn from past mistakes:

“His strategy hinges on getting the homeless into permanent housing in order to establish ties to a community. The tenant agrees to pay a nominal rent of no more than 30 per cent of whatever income he has. And he must abide by lease agreements, just as any other renter would do.”

Interestingly, the tenant is helped rather than compelled to deal with their other problems:

“…he is not forced to seek treatment for mental illness or addiction, but he is offered such programs by a full-time case worker who regularly visits to help the tenant negotiate his way through the maze of social services and charitable organizations.”

What we see here is respect for the individual – and an approach to public service delivery that organises government around people, rather than people around government.

But does it work?

It most certainly does:

“Tsemberis’s program attracted the attention of Republican governors around the country because it ultimately saved money. Lots of taxpayer money. When Utah officials added up the amount going into medical treatment and law enforcement, the cost to the state per homeless individual was more than $216,300 a year in 2007 dollars, according to Housing Works. The cost of housing, rent assistance, and full-time case management, meanwhile, was just $19,500.”

Other states are now busily adopting their own version of Housing Works – further evidence that localising power is the best way of encouraging social innovation. This is something we need to learn back home. While the decentralisation of power is a key feature of the Government’s education reforms, it is all but absent from welfare reform.

There’s not a hope of different public services coming together to put people back on their feet unless it happens locally. Councils should be given the authority and the financial incentive to develop their own reforms – in partnership with private and voluntary sector providers.

Not all of them will bother and of those that do, not all of them will it get it right first time. But where social innovation does succeed it will be copied and adapted, spreading through the nation on the basis of local experience.

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