Needless to say, the homeless situation in Salt Lake is complicated. It impacts businesses, residential areas, health care systems and has been a controversial topic of conversation within the community for many years.
As students of the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Utah, we are deeply concerned about the proposition for the closure of 500 West, also known as “the block” by those who frequent it. In a city and culture that values good will, service and loving kindness, we believe this proposition lacks understanding and empathy for our brothers and sisters within the homeless community.
Our goal is not to discredit or devalue the work and efforts of the political leaders, law enforcement officers and other governing agencies of the greater Salt Lake area. In fact, as students, we want to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation for that work on an unfathomably complex issue. We also recognize that a universal solution — one where every party is satisfied — might be impossible.
We do believe, however, that the profession of social work, including its licensed professionals and its students, could contribute ideas to this problem that might better represent a perspective that seems to be missing from the proposed solution: the human perspective.
We believe that homeless people are not the problem, because there are innumerable systematic challenges that contribute to one’s homelessness. In an attempt to quickly eradicate homelessness, the men, women and children who live on the streets of Salt Lake City are now seen as a problem to be solved rather than people to be loved and supported.
These are mothers, children, brothers, sisters and veterans. Some of them contribute to the concerning drug culture, and some of them constitute a population that chronically suffers from untreated mental illness. But these people are strong, they are resilient and they are human. Is it humane to keep our fellow citizens behind a fence?
Our job as social workers is to advocate on behalf of those without a voice. The nature of our work allows for us to work intimately with these people, to empower them and to include them in the systematic solutions that will bring long-term peace and stability to their lives. We feel our experience with these men and women qualifies us to contribute to this discussion. This is our passion first, and our job second. As social workers we submit that our involvement in resolving this county wide concern would be invaluable, and ask that our voices be heard in formulating solution-based legislation.
Liz Foxley and Taylor Berhow are master of social work and master of public administration students, and Claudine Miller is a master of social work student, all at the University of Utah.