During conversations with the homeless in our Tai Chi Program at the downtown Salt Lake City Public Library, we have heard the same story repeated over and over.
The homeless are stopped for a minor offense and their backgrounds are checked for outstanding warrants. If they have warrants, they are taken to the Salt Lake County Jail and held for one to three days and released.
All of this is legal, but it happens often enough that it appears to the casual observer as a form of harassment, especially when it’s often the same individuals rearrested days after being released. But it isn’t the arrest process the homeless speak of in the morning over coffee. Many understand that the process is something they are trapped in and have to endure. Many feel it’s the price of being an individual living on the streets.
What they talk about isn’t being arrested for jaywalking or smoking, but the conversations are almost always about being released from jail at 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. — after the buses back to Salt Lake City have stopped running, especially being asked to leave in the middle of the night when it’s cold with only what they’re wearing and no blankets.
We hear stories of people waiting for rides and being told they have to wait outside, or those who leave for a smoke are not allowed back in.
And what prompted us to write are the stories circulating about the heated sideways at the jail that help those released on a cold night survive until morning. Humans in Salt Lake are lying prone on sidewalks outside our jails to stay warm while they wait for the buses to start running.
This, the home of The Church of Latter-day Saints and of Catholics and many other fine religions. We believe they are unaware of how the system that represents them deals with the most vulnerable in our community.
We have to believe that it is only because this happens in the middle of the night and what is out of sight is out of mind. We have approached local officials about the problem. It seems there are no funds and, to us, more importantly, an apparent lack of will to deal with the issue.
It seems to us that making it tough on the poor and vulnerable may be one of the answers our leaders use to solve the riddle of homelessness.
They’re just homeless and used to the cold. Or perhaps they’re dismissed as drug users or prostitutes. But in reality, in talking with these street folks, they’re often the mentally ill children of parents living in Utah or the mentally ill parents of children in Utah.
How can a system that treats individuals in this manner expect the homeless to take what social workers and therapists say seriously? When the homeless come to us, we listen and act on what we hear. This is how we build trust. This is how we build relationships that have meaning.
The mentally ill and those struggling on the streets must first trust those they turn to for help. If that trust isn’t developed, the systems put in place to work with the homeless will fail … and that failure will not be the fault of those sleeping on heated sidewalks to keep warm.
No, it will be the fault of those who allowed this to happen and those who continue to look the other way while it’s happening.
Bernie and Marita Hart are homeless advocates and explorers of new thinking about what it is to be human.