Commentary: Solving the homeless problem in Salt Lake City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski talks about the homeless problem with westside residents who say that the crackdown on crime in the Rio Grande area has pushed homeless people and drug activity toward their neighborhoods, at the Poplar Grove Community Alliance Meeting at the St. Patrick Parish Social Hall, Friday, August 25, 2017.

With the forthcoming 2019 Salt Lake City elections, I feel it is important for all mayor and City Council candidates to understand the basis of Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s (and her administration’s) homeless programs. In September of 2016 I emailed a letter to the Salt Lake mayor that described the following.

From my experience of being homeless, I observed the following five reasons for being homeless: lost one’s job and then one’s home; just divorced and then lost one’s home; just out of jail with no job and no home; mental illness and unable to function well in society; just like being free with no responsibilities.

I proposed solving the homeless problem by addressing each of these problems. Hook into the Department of Workforce Services to help the jobless to get a job; do the same for the divorced, plus provide professional counseling to deal with divorce issues; provide social workers in the shelter building to address mental illness issues and job counseling; provide counselors to encourage the freedom-loving but lazy to decide to do something productive with their lives. This last category of homelessness is particularly difficult. Family members and religious leaders especially have a responsibility to help lost souls find a viable purpose for their lives.

Importantly, counseling at the homeless building should be provided to get each homeless person or family into an apartment or home. This is made easier if a job is obtained first.

To accomplish these goals requires changes in how the homeless shelter is structured and the functions that are provided. A homeless shelter must provide space for social workers, counselors and other personnel to address the client issues of finding a job, getting a second chance from jail or prison and dealing with mental illness issues. It must provide adequate and safe space for their belongings.

With these changes, the goal of each homeless shelter is to get people into homes. I initially set a goal of getting 20 people into homes each month from the shelters. If this was done, over a year 240 people would need apartments or residences (thus the need for low-cost housing). Over several years the homeless population should be seriously decreased. The homeless need the space and time to find the ways to get back into a home.

After discussing this with two of the mayor’s aides (Jennifer Seelig and Nate Garcia) in October of 2016, their thinking was similar to mine. Her administration went beyond my thinking and developed programs and plans to address each of the reasons for being homeless. For example, DWS personnel have been made available to shelter residents for finding jobs. Sessions were set up for having criminal records expunged if the offense was older than seven years. Housing for clients with mental illnesses have been developed.

Having seen the great need for low-cost housing, Biskupski has pushed hard to develop more low-cost housing. The new resource shelters have been developed to address all of these items. They are conceived as helping the homeless get into homes.

Rep. Ben McAdams helped considerably when he was the mayor of Salt Lake County, as have countless city and county employees. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes provided needed financial leadership, and many people contributed to developing the Rio Grande project. The fight against illegal drug use became a priority in conjunction with all of these plans and programs. It must be remembered that every employer only wants to hire drug free employees.

All these goals are perfectly logical given the five very serious reasons for becoming homeless. If the next Salt Lake City mayor and the City Council ignore these reasons and the solutions for addressing them, they are being both illogical and irrational and should not be trusted spending the city’s money. These are workable plans and programs and the next mayor and city councilmen need to continue them. Getting the homeless into homes results in a city and state that all Utah residents can be proud of.

Gary Leimback

Gary Leimback is a retired computer technical writer and Salt Lake City resident who now spends his time reading and writing philosophy.

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