George Pyle: Look upstream for ways to reduce poverty and homelessness

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pat King cuts the ribbon at the new Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center on Friday, June 21, 2019. The center will service homeless women.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Desmond Tutu

OK. Show of hands. How many of you were surprised to learn that one of the three new service centers in Salt Lake County for the homeless — the one for women — is already overflowing and that the problem is only going to get worse as the weather gets colder?

Didn’t think so.

Actually, nobody is really shocked. Even the people who were behind the drive to close the old Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street and replace it with three shiny new service centers were aware that there would be a transition period.

It’s just the way it works when moving from one system to another, like when you are paying the mortgage on two houses until the old one sells. A period you hope will be very brief indeed.

The reason they are calling the new facilities “service centers” rather than “shelters” is that the whole idea is not just to shelter homeless people, but serve them. Find out what has happened in their lives that they are out on the street. Figure out what they need. Mental health and/or addiction treatment. Help filling out the forms to get the disability, veterans or other benefits that they are already by law entitled to but haven’t found. A line on a job. Transportation to a job. Insulin.

If the city, county, state and charitable organizations behind the new way of helping the homeless don’t drop the ball, don’t lose interest or cut off funding, there is every reason to hope that the new system will work.

That those who only need a nudge will get through a rough patch and into more or less permanent housing and relative self-sufficiency.

That those who need more help, including those who may never be fully able to take care of themselves, will get what they need.

And that the rest of us will feel less guilty walking down a Salt Lake City street in the coldest months, stepping over the bodies of human beings who have nowhere else — or think they have nowhere else — to go.

All of that is going to cost money. Philanthropy will be a big part of it. Taxpayers will be on the hook. Forever.

But if we really want to reduce the number and the suffering of homeless people on our streets, not just a cycle where we house one while two more show up, we are going to have to look a little further upstream. We are going to have to see to it that the people who benefit the most from living around here do their share.

The most obvious thing that will never happen in a Republican-controlled state would be to raise the minimum wage. A lot. To at least the $15 an hour that’s being thrown around nationally.

Employers who pay appreciably less than that are at least as much of a beneficiary of taxpayer-funded welfare programs as any fellow American who’s down on his luck.

They get away with paying starvation wages for jobs that people will actually take only because both employer and employee know they can close the gap with Medicaid, welfare, free lunches for their children and service centers for the homeless.

And the folks who are raking in the bucks by building all these “luxury apartments” along every major street will have to be responsible for creating more — a ton more — housing that isn’t so luxury but just decent and affordable.

If they aren’t willing to play ball, they can forget about their rezonings and their building permits and move to Phoenix. We’d be better off without them.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter, @debatestate