The past few months have marked one of the most collaborative campaigns to address homelessness in Utah to date. The joint efforts of city, county and state governments have helped to protect people experiencing homelessness from a harrowing increase in lawlessness in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City. I would like to commend these different forces for working together in such a productive way to improve our capital city and protect the most vulnerable people in our society.
By working to reduce crime in the Rio Grande district, law enforcement and government agencies have created a safe space for those most in need of services. However, it is also our job as responsible and active citizens to increase our own awareness of these issues and join in the efforts to end homelessness.
There is a moral component to Operation Rio Grande, from its efforts to end predatory behavior in the area to the vital issues of rehabilitation and return to housing for our most vulnerable citizens. We in the voting public can ensure these efforts remain priorities.
Government leaders have pledged to provide better access to rehabilitation programs and a focus on the dignity of work to help individuals dealing with homelessness find and maintain housing and stable employment. These efforts reflect one of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, “preferential option” for the poor. We believe that each individual is deserving of life and dignity, but that the neediest will always require the fullness of our attention; the situation in Rio Grande should be at the forefront of our minds.
Furthermore, we are called to think carefully about the importance of work, not just as a way of making a living, but also as a way of participating in God’s creation. Phase three of Operation Rio Grande will provide training and employment opportunities to individuals experiencing homelessness. It asks us to give preferential option to people who struggle to maintain employment because of mental illnesses, criminal records, and an array of other challenges. In this critical time, all citizens need to be a part of these efforts to open up opportunities for people to live a life of dignity with meaningful employment.
As has been discussed by various groups, we must also move forward in addressing the staggering lack of affordable housing across Salt Lake County. The county is suffering from a housing crisis, with skyrocketing rents and home prices leaving more and more residents behind. When the Road Home closes in 2019, the new resources centers will be short about 400 beds. While some families are currently housed in motels, this is not a long-term solution.
As a city, county and state, we need to prioritize housing, both in emergency services and affordable housing systems. It is up to each of us as individual voters and residents to ensure that budgeting and planning at the state, county and city reflect the needs of our most vulnerable populations, especially those suffering from mental illness and those who are unable to hold a steady job. Permanent supportive housing is a necessary part of the solution to the crisis that deserves heightened attention from the city and the state.
During this time, I urge not only our civic leaders, but also the general public of Utah, to think about our participative roles in Operation Rio Grande. As citizens, we must all be advocates for the least members of our society. Nothing is impossible when everyone does their share and contributes to finding solutions to the needs of our brothers and sisters.
We are grateful to the law enforcement, state, county and city government agencies for your commitment to making our community safe and a place where all people, especially the poor, live with dignity as our brothers and sisters. I offer my prayers that your noble work merit God’s favor and your efforts and sacrifices will not be in vain.
The Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.