The recent legislative audit of the Road Home’s three homeless facilities provides us with an opportunity to do better as a community in responding to homelessness. Unfortunately, I worry we will miss it.
First, I worry we will miss it because the audit has sparked too much defensiveness. Second, I worry we will miss it because those responsible for oversight of the Road Home have been reluctant to impose accountability.
Both of these errors come from focusing on those providing homeless services rather than focusing on those receiving them.
After the Legislature released its audit, Salt Lake County Major Ben McAdams tweeted that it was time to address the deplorable conditions described in the document. His statement — a real no-brainer, who doesn’t think that we should provide those experiencing homelessness with a safe shelter environment? — was greeted mostly with boos.
These disappointing, defensive responses all revolved around one theme: How dare the mayor criticize the people providing services to the homeless. But he did nothing of the sort; he simply asked that we address the problems found in the audit.
More importantly, this should not be about those who serve the homeless. This should be about those who experience it.
As the audit explained, a lack of safety and drug abuse are creating an inhospitable environment in the Road Home’s facilities. People experiencing homelessness are avoiding these places as a result — that means they are sleeping on the streets and less likely to be connected with housing. This problem needs to be fixed.
We do not need to make any moral judgments about those who serve the homeless to solve this problem. It does not really matter if they are great people or mediocre, if they are Utah fans or prefer BYU, if they listen to country or oldies. Personally, for what it is worth, my observation is that they are impressive, committed people.
Shelters do not have to be such toxic places. I recently visited a large shelter in Las Vegas that provides significant security in a respectful and efficient manner. Patrons there seemed to appreciate the minor inconvenience of a thorough security check because they did not have to worry the rest of the night about needles or knives.
Perhaps the Road Home fears that real security will chase away some of its clientele, those who might be paranoid or have substance abuse issues. It hinted as much at the audit hearing. This is not a bad aspiration. People with these issues should be sheltered as well. However, why cater only to them?
The downtown shelter, at least, could create two different experiences. It could have one door for those who can observe standard rules about drug use and violence and another door for those who are so high as to be disruptive or are paranoid about security screening. Let people choose whether they want real security or not.
But solutions do not create themselves and they do not happen when there is no demand for improvements.
It is time for the boards overseeing the Road Home and its shelters to demand more. Do these boards believe that shelters must inevitably be drug-infested, threatening places? Right now, they seemed resigned to this. They shouldn’t be.
We must do better and seize this opportunity to improve our shelter system.
David Garbett is director of the Pioneer Park Coalition.