Kip Yost: The Great Salt Lake Shelter Shell Game

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People gather outside the men's side entrance to the Road Home in Salt Lake City at the end of the day on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019.

I spent most of 2019 in Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter, a massive old building directly across the street from the $375 million Gateway Mall, one of Salt Lake City’s premier malls. Across from the shelter to the west is a luxury apartment complex where the rent starts at an astronomical $1,400 a month; for a studio.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that moneyed interests had designs on the land underneath the current homeless shelter.

There was money to be made, lots of it, and the homeless were in the way.

In 2017, shortly after a billion-dollar real estate conglomerate purchased the Gateway Mall, a plan was hatched to remove the homeless from downtown Salt Lake City, sending them far enough away that they wouldn’t be a factor in the plans to capitalize on the increasingly valuable real estate in the area.

The main thrust of this relocation plan was the construction of three new homeless shelters, (now called resource centers) all of them many miles away from the lucrative downtown area. The operators of these new facilities stated that they needed $40 million to succeed in their mission to reduce the homeless population, but only $17 million was approved by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and his committee on the homeless.

The new shelter arrangement has an immediate and massive problem, however, as all three of them combined have a capacity that is 400 spots short of what is available at the old shelter.

Despite all their talk, the conservative Utah Legislature is unlikely to fight for lower rents or housing costs, not when so many of them are either property managers or developers themselves or are beholden to them for campaign money.

Utah’s Legislature is unlikely to fight for better health coverage either, in fact, they infamously defied the will of the voters and torpedoed the Medicaid expansion that the voters had approved.

Likewise, Utah’s Legislature is not likely to seriously consider a minimum wage increase, and you can be excused for giggling at the thought. A living wage has never been a priority in Utah, and neither has the idea of actually asking the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes to support better programs for addiction, mental health treatment, affordable housing and job training. The waiting lists for those programs are absurd, and getting worse.

There isn’t likely to be any serious reform of Utah’s draconian criminal justice system either, the impoverished will still be discouraged from asking for a fair trial, fines for minor infractions will continue to increase and long-past felony convictions will continue to prevent people from getting jobs or apartments, even if they were non-violent. Timely expungement of felony convictions will remain a pipe dream.

As a result of this lack of will to make tough policy changes, Utah will continue to be a social embarrassment, leading the nation in depression prescriptions (1st), nearly leading in suicides (5th) and medical bankruptcies (6th).

The homeless are a population without champions, without lobbyists or corporate sponsorship, and that’s unlikely to change. They must live with this stigma and deal with the fact that, to many of the housed, every single one of us was the guy who stabbed that other guy or shot that woman or robbed that place of business or kicked that little dog.

Many of the homeless are easily the most empathetic, compassionate and gentle people you’ll ever meet. Sadly, sometimes that’s the very reason why they have ended up homeless.

Look, until someone actually experiences something, it’s impossible to get it into your mind in complete form. The problem with almost everything that you have ever read or heard about the homeless came from a source who has studied the problem externally, and pointedly has not actually experienced it.

The belief that is sold by some politicians and media outlets is that the homeless are irretrievably broken. This is patently false, but it nevertheless works when politicians attack the homeless with laws that criminalize their very existence.

Last year over 120 homeless people died, and that’s too many.

Tough policy changes are needed to even begin to solve the homeless crisis, and until the political will is there, this is just a shelter shell game.

Kip Yost

Kip Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in an apartment in Salt Lake City.

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