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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah can be the subject of a lot of jokes. But this time, the joke is for a good cause.
The way Utah is addressing the homeless issue caught the attention of "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. It’s helping shed light on an important issue while also making people laugh.
It all started with the many housing units set up to help get homeless off the street. It’s a program called Housing First, and it’s working so well, the state says it has decreased homelessness by 72 percent since 2005. Now, even more people are hearing about its success, thanks to the popular show.
Homelessness is no laughing matter. But last week, the five-minute segment airing on Comedy Central shined a spotlight on a state program to an audience who otherwise may never have heard of it.
“The Daily Show” sent a reporter to find out why the homeless population in Utah is shrinking — he found Homeless Task Force director Lloyd Pendleton.
He’s turned into a bit of an overnight celebrity since the piece aired. Pendleton admits he wasn’t really sure what to expect.
“I knew it was going to be a little unusual,” said Pendleton. “They didn’t tell me what it was going to be. They just started out, so I was dead serious.”
Helping house the homeless has been Pendleton’s life for the past eight years. He’s always happy to share Utah’s success with other people, but admits when "The Daily Show" called, he wasn’t exactly familiar with their work.
“They were doing this very weird way of interviewing, of playing dumb and pushing back, so I just played along,” Pendleton said. “Then I would stop and say, ‘Producer, is this really going like this?’ They’d say, ‘You’re doing great, just keep going.’ ”
They were doing this very weird way of interviewing, of playing dumb and pushing back, so I just played along. Then I would stop and say, 'Producer, is this really going like this?' They'd say, 'You're doing great, just keep going.'
–Lloyd Pendleton, Homeless Task Force director
During the two-day shoot, Pendleton took the crew around to the different housing complexes and introduced them to one of the residents the program’s helped. Because of the sensitive topic, Pendleton was concerned about how the story would look.
On the night it aired, “I had meeting that night until late, so I went home and went to bed and forgot about it,” Pendleton said.
When he woke up the next morning, his inbox was flooded with emails from around the country.
“Just over the weekend, I’ve probably got 50 emails from people saying how much they enjoyed that piece about Utah,” Pendleton said.
He’s happy the message that chronic homeless can be solved is getting out, even if the delivery of that message is a little unconventional. But he did get one piece of criticism:
“The only comment I got at church was, ‘You need to smile more, because you’re too serious.’ ”
As for the cost, Pendleton said the program has paid off for the state. He said it costs about $10,000 to $12,000 a year to provide housing and services for one person, compared to spending about $20,000 a year on services like emergency medical care and jail time when they’re living on the street.