Robert Gehrke: The pandemic makes Utah’s homeless situation more complicated than ever

More people are camping outside or getting vouchers to stay in hotels.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

They’re down by the library or at Pioneer Park, clustering under overpasses and in lots, the makeshift homeless camps that seem to be as widespread and jammed pack as they’ve ever been.

Property owners, through the Pioneer Park Coalition, are demanding the government do something to clear them out. Attempts to dismantle the pop-up campsites this month drew protests from activists at the Salt Lake County Health Department, which closed down early to avoid conflicts.

As with everything during the pandemic, the coronavirus has exacerbated the inequities in our society and made one of our most intractable problems many times worse.

“There is always going to be some amount of unsheltered homelessness in our community and I think we can be smart about how we respond to that,” Michelle Hoon, the project and policy manager with Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team, told me, “but I think the pandemic has made it a lot more challenging.”

There are clearly more unhoused people camping on streets — although some of that may be because, with buildings closed, they have nowhere else to go — but there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in people seeking services at shelters.

It makes sense. Group living arrangements are notoriously difficult settings in which to control the virus and given the choice between going to a shelter and taking your chances on the streets, you might take your chances outdoors, too, particularly in what has been, so far, a mild winter.

In Salt Lake County, efforts have been made to reduce risk.

There are more beds available this winter than last, according to Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships at Salt Lake County. “We anticipated the need was going to be greater so we’ve been working hard to get people more beds,” she said.

The resource centers have been reconfigured to spread people out more and the county is relying more on putting people into hotel rooms, whether that’s through vouchers, the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” hotel program, or plans to essentially take over the Airport Inn in Salt Lake City for the rest of the winter.

Those individuals at the highest risk for complications from COVID-19 have been the top priority for the hotel program.

Aggressive weekly testing and quarantining of positive residents have also curbed the risk of spread in the shelters. In the past three months, the county has reported 353 COVID cases in the homeless resource centers, a rate that is actually below that in the county’s general population.

It’s alleviated the problem — it hasn’t solved it.

The Pioneer Park Coalition, frustrated with the damage being done to property and businesses downtown, has been calling for the campers to be dispersed, saying the squats are magnets for drugs, sexual abuse and other crime.

But law enforcement is a uniquely bad tool to use to solve the problem, even in the best of times. Now, during a pandemic, jails are trying to keep the inmate populations low to limit the potential spread of the virus there.

And it’s been said before, but you can’t arrest your way out of a homeless crisis. If we needed proof, look at the recent reporting from my colleagues, Bethany Rodgers and Taylor Stevens. They found 80% of the money spent on Operation Rio Grande was spent on the arrest, detention and legal process for those individuals.

It didn’t solve the problem.

“It’s really easy to see people on the street and say, ‘Those resource centers aren’t working.’ But you can’t equate the two,” Fife said. “We’re doing a lot, for sure, but the need is great.”

Homelessness remains — as it always has been — symptomatic of larger societal problems, whether it’s job instability or mental illness or addiction or a dearth of affordable housing or a combination of any or all of the above.

Each of those are incredibly complicated issues on their own and each has been exacerbated by the pandemic. If we haven’t been able to solve these problems in the best of times, it’s unrealistic to think we’ll conquer them in the most challenging we have seen.

The best we can do is to provide the safest living arrangements possible to get people off the streets, whether that is at the shelter or in a hotel, and make sure people feel confident they won’t be at risk.

We can connect these individuals with the services aimed at trying to help them change their lives.

And we can hope — not just for isolated successes but, as we emerge from the pandemic in the spring and summer that we can see real change.

The Kem Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah has recommended changes to the governance structure that could help.

But without a real commitment of resources, that too is likely to just be shifting boxes on an organizational chart.

The good news is that some of the pieces are taking shape, through expanded Medicaid funding, the Huntsman family’s generous investment in mental health resources, and hopefully housing funding from the Legislature.

If we can make it through this winter — and I believe we can — we might just start to see real, tangible progress in a lasting solution to our state’s homeless crisis.