“You can’t shoot up heroin if you want to stay for free in my house. You can’t smoke spice. You can’t carry a weapon. You can’t attack someone.”
Seems outrageous to even have to mention such common decency rules that allow all of us to function successfully together in the community we call mankind, yet violations of these restrictions occur daily at The Road Home Emergency Shelter downtown.
It shouldn’t have taken a team of state auditors to shed light on this harsh reality. In my decades as a television reporter in Utah, I have covered this story dozens of times, interviewing homeless people who have spent many nights there. Many were scared for their safety if they went on camera, but a few courageous souls told me how they witnessed fights inside the shelter. One was awakened to a stabbing. The stench of spice pervades the men’s area. They say it is not unusual to walk into the bathroom and see a poor soul nodding off on the floor with a needle in his arm. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams shared similar safety and health concerns when he spent the night there undercover.
Now he and other leaders are asking the folks who run The Road Home to be more accountable. Not an unreasonable request, considering that tax dollars help to keep the facility afloat, not to mention the generous donations from thousands of concerned citizens.
My friend, Road Home Executive Director Matt Minkevitch, has a real dilemma. He is a caring soul and would love to save every homeless person if he could, but he can’t. The rules to stop drug usage and violence inside the shelter already exist. Here’s his dilemma: If the rules are strictly enforced (which they aren’t now), Matt worries that people who need help will stay away because they don’t want to abide by those rules. If they aren’t enforced, then other homeless people are too scared to stay there. I’ve interviewed countless people who stay away because they fear for their safety in The Road Home. Bottom line: You can’t serve both in the same place.
There is no doubt that the people who use the shelter or hang out on Rio Grande are dealing with issues hard for the average person to understand. There are mental illness and drug addiction. These people are the most vulnerable of all. But by giving them the right to thumb their noses at societal norms, we are doing them a grave disservice. We are saying they are different than everyone else and they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Their lot in life will never improve with an attitude like that.
I currently work at Odyssey House, the largest and most successful treatment program in Utah. We have extremely strict guidelines about things like drug usage and violence inside our facilities to keep everyone in the program safe, yet there is a long waiting list of people wanting help, willing to live by the rules to get in. Odyssey is there for anyone who wants help. We understand the disease of substance use and that relapse is part of the process. We also believe that anyone with a drug addiction must learn to live by basic human rules if they ever want to fit into society when they get out.
Strict enforcement of just basic guidelines at The Road Home Emergency Shelter will make it safe for the majority of people who need a place to stay until they can find housing or treatment for their substance use or mental health issues.
What about those who choose to continue to live a chaotic, lawless life? Should The Road Home take them in, too, when they threaten the safety of others? I’ll never forget a question posed last year by a woman I respect and admire. Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson asked during a meeting of experts, “What do we do with people who just don’t want any help?”
No one had an answer.
Randall Carlisle worked for 40 years as a TV reporter, most of those in Salt Lake City. He is now media and community affairs specialist at Odyssey House of Utah.