Commentary: The homeless have no voice at the table

(photo courtesy Christine Ireland) People sleep on the floor at the Road Home in Salt Lake City in the early morning hours on January 25, 2019.

There was a time when Utah was lauded nationally for dramatically reducing the number of chronic homeless.

Now? Not so much. No permanent supportive housing has been allocated since 2010. Not only that, but the Homeless Coordinating committee, led by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, will be funding less than half of the requested support for homeless programs, a $23 million dollar shortfall that will be a devastating blow to the homeless population.

This shortfall hits at a time when the shelter move, which will force the homeless out of the downtown area, will result in a shortage of 300 of the beds that are currently available. As the current shelter runs out of beds almost every single night, one has to wonder where those 300 people will go.

Utah’s population growth percentage leads the nation over the past decade. The population grew by 57,987 people last year. Are we to assume that none of those people will ever experience homelessness?

Funding for the earlier initiatives that worked so well dried up when downtown property grew too valuable. Now the homeless are being removed, sent to locations far away from downtown.

And yes, I am a homeless man myself. So I bring a perspective that is rarely represented in this discussion. Most of us learned of this move by way of a note scrawled on a whiteboard saying:

-Get Your Housing Now! The Shelter Will Close In 3 Months!-

The staff here (who are mostly generous, wonderful people), were tasked with wearing shirts that say: “How can I help with your housing today?”

The whole “help with housing” thing is, sadly, a bit of a cruel joke.

Many people here don’t qualify for housing for one reason or another. Some are too hopelessly handicapped with mental health issues for successful placement.

Some are too lost in addictions to be seriously considered for housing.

Some are on various support programs inadequate for the expensive housing available. And there simply isn’t enough affordable housing.

Others are somewhere in limbo between qualification for support programs, job training or the chronically homeless designation and are just … stuck.

Regardless of assurances that medical services will still be available, this move will effectively eliminate access to many other health care options. Alternative Medicaid clinics will no longer be close by. The hospitals currently in close proximity will be much farther away. Locations that serve meals and foodbanks will be nearly out of reach.

The Salt Lake Central hub, which provides access to UTA buses, trains and other transportation, will also be out of reach, in its place only one single bus route will available for the men, including those who are employed or in need of routine medical or psychiatric care or job training.

In spite of what some would have you believe, the homeless population is not comprised solely of drug-addled wastrels and parasites. Most of us are thinking, feeling, loved and loving people. Many are mentally or physically disabled without family support. Some are retirees and older people who discovered that Social Security and Disability pay for almost nothing. The only crime these people are guilty of is the failure to become wealthy enough to live out their years in something other than abject poverty.

It’s true that drug and alcohol abuse is pervasive in the homeless population. So, too, is hunger, fear, depression, pain, loneliness and loss. But drug abuse is largely a by-product, not the cause, of homelessness. But we have a war on drugs, not addiction. Just imagine if we had built more treatment centers instead of more prisons.

Sending the homeless away where they will no longer be inconvenient to development is not the same as addressing the issues that continue to contribute to the problem.

It is unfortunate that the homeless and the impoverished have no lobbyists, and we can’t afford re-election campaigns.

You may think that this subject has no relevance to you, but studies have shown that millions of Americans are just one paycheck away from financial ruin.

How many paychecks away from homelessness are you? How many, really? Homelessness affects everyone, everywhere.

Sen. Mitt Romney famously said: “I’m not worried about the very poor, they have a safety net.”

We do?

Kip Yost

Kip Yost is a currently homeless person rebuilding his life in Salt Lake City.

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