I agree with Bill Tibbitts (June 25). We should provide shelter options for all who experience homelessness and are trying to exit the streets or seeking help. However, he is wrong to suggest The Road Home’s downtown shelter should stay open after next year to accomplish this.
This is backward looking and a distraction.
The Road Home must close, as scheduled, June 2019. It is an unsafe and outdated space that has become home to a culture of drugs and violence. A legislative audit from earlier this year documents this.
Read any recent news story about homeless camps or people sleeping in public spaces. Chaos, unsanitary conditions, drugs and danger of the downtown shelter are the most common reasons they give for sleeping outside.
Keeping open a shelter that is scaring people away is not a solution to addressing homelessness.
And neither is an infinite number of shelter beds the solution to addressing homelessness. It is merely a band-aid for the problem. Instead of focusing on a temporary solution, we should put more effort toward treating substance abuse, mental health, affordable housing and lack of education to minimize the likelihood of individuals returning to the streets.
Closing the downtown shelter is part of a wholescale revision to the way our community addresses homelessness and a move away from temporary solutions.
Tibbitts wrongly argues that because Salt Lake County is growing, the downtown shelter must stay open. While the population of Salt Lake County is growing quickly, its homeless population is not. In fact, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness here has decreased 5.3 percent between 2007 and 2017.
In arguing for more shelter beds, Tibbitts focuses only on the worst-case scenario: needing the downtown shelter’s maximum capacity of 1,062 spaces for people to sleep. Keeping a shelter operating year-round for a problem that exists only occasionally diverts precious funds from housing solutions, drug treatment and mental health services.
During the last year, the average number of people served nightly at The Road Home is 712. Even in the winter the average number does not climb appreciably above 800. Combined, the three new resource centers replacing the downtown shelter have a capacity of 700 beds available. New public funding in the last year has added 243 substance abuse treatment beds. Volunteers of America will soon open a small new shelter in the Salt Lake Valley.
If more capacity is needed, motels and other temporary options are available.
If we still need shelter space to help people experiencing homelessness, then let us have that conversation, but the space should not be at a location that has such an inhospitable history.
Tibbitts is right, however, to argue that rental rates and housing availability correlate with homeless numbers. The current trends are certainly troubling.
Homelessness is a housing problem, among other things. Cities can help by removing exclusionary zoning policies. Zoning restricts housing opportunities and causes prices to rise above market levels. There are creative and innovative ways for the city to plan for and supply affordable housing that does not result in urban sprawl.
Keeping The Road Home’s downtown shelter open is counterproductive. It is doing the same thing and expecting different results. With the opening of the new homeless resource centers and the changes to our model for responding to homelessness, we can innovate rather than continue to idle in the old and archaic. Fortunately, nobody needs to be left out in the cold.
Michelle Miller is a homelessness researcher for the Pioneer Park Coalition.