Like many communities, we grapple with a challenging dilemma: How can we help homeless families and individuals while supporting the neighborhoods where services are provided? The past several months have been particularly tough in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Fortunately there are lots of people who want to roll up their sleeves and find solutions.
To better understand the situation, we spent a night on floor mats at The Road Home along with hundreds of others. A few hours sleeping in a shelter certainly doesn’t make us experts, but we both left with greater empathy for people who use emergency services as their best or last option.
Some homeless people struggle with mental illness. Some also struggle with addiction. A concentration of people with addictions inevitably attracts drug dealers and other criminals who prey on their vulnerability. This was evident during our night at the shelter.
The Salt Lake City Police Department recently focused outreach and drug stings in the area, arresting 16 dealers in four days. Yet, a day after this intense effort from our dedicated police force, the trade continued unabated. We watched people dealing and getting high through the evening as we waited outside for overflow space to open.
We agree with police when they say: "We can’t arrest our way out of this." Yet, a strong police presence, with support from the district attorney and our court system, is essential to curtail the drug trade and protect vulnerable people. We must dedicate the necessary resources to make people safe wherever they live. Law enforcement is part of the solution.
It’s important to understand the vast majority of homeless people are not criminals. Most are kind and generous souls who lead difficult lives — often through no fault of their own. Think of a teen who ages out of foster care, a woman fleeing abuse or a man whose medical bills force him out of his home. Regardless of how people end up homeless, they deserve our help.
We saw that help come in the form of staff at The Road Home, who showed professionalism and compassion during sometimes difficult circumstances. The women who checked us in and managed the men’s dormitory treated every person with respect and dignity. As we watched them through the night we were humbled by their work. Our nonprofit service providers are also part of the solution.
It is worth asking: Are we doing enough as a larger community to help? In the words of Harvard Economist, Edward Glaeser, "Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities ... demonstrates urban strength, not weakness."
Our city is uniquely positioned to find solutions.
The 2008 recession led to a huge increase in the number of homeless people in our region. In fact, over the last three years The Road Home has seen a 309 percent jump in the number of families seeking shelter. Programs for rehousing and long-term supportive housing were successful as federal stimulus money helped house hundreds of people from 2009 to 2012. Unfortunately, sequestration ended much of that federal support.
Miraculously, The Road Home has not had to expand the downtown shelter. But the situation in the larger neighborhood is untenable. There is consensus — among providers, neighbors, and homeless people alike — that our current efforts are inadequate. The loudest voices of concern often come from the homeless themselves.
The way things are now is not how they should be. While the challenges we face are complex and difficult, they are not insurmountable. A community that is as fortunate as ours should not be content with neighborhoods that feel unsafe. A society that is as wealthy as ours should not be content with hundreds of people sleeping on yoga mats in hallways because they have no place else to go. It is time to rethink how our city, county and state provide care. We can do better.
David Everitt is the chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. Jason Mathis is the Executive Director of the Downtown Alliance.
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