George Chapman: Questions for the U.S. Homeless Coordinating Committee executive director

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Robert Marbut talks during a Pioneer Park Coalition meeting at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Marbut is a proponent of a controversial approach to homelessness that purportedly encourages a campus-type approach for homelessness and tough enforcement outside of that of anti-panhandling and loitering laws. Homeless advocates like the Crossroads Urban Center contend the approach is "dehumanizing" and "bullying."

Robert Marbut is going to be in Utah this week. He has gained a reputation as a homeless consultant and was recently appointed by President Trump as the executive director of the council that coordinates homeless programs.

He is a proponent of requiring good behavior by the homeless if they want to receive benefits. He has claimed that the present policies on homelessness, such as allowing panhandling, drug use and camping in parks and on the sidewalks, are effectively enabling homelessness. He has encouraged cities to stop allowing charities and churches to pass out food to homeless camping areas. He also is a proponent of outlawing homeless camping and using the police in what has been described as quality of life enforcement.

Salt Lake City has tried that approach several times in the last few decades without long term successful effect. When Salt Lake City and Utah decided to split up the homeless shelters into four different sites of 150 beds (eventually changed to three 200-bed units), he suggested that it would be better to have one big homeless campus away from the city.

Around 10 years ago, the Road Home stopped allowing day storage because many people were storing drugs. That was the only available storage for years, until Salt Lake City allowed homeless to store their belongings in a building that was only open a few hours a day. It was not convenient for those who wanted to work. Although there are hundreds of storage bins, sometimes they are full, and the facility is only open from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

In my opinion, when homeless carry all that they own or camp with their belongings, it effectively forces them to stay homeless. They aren’t able to work without losing everything that they owned.

The new Salt Lake County homeless system does allow for storage of personal items, but the system seems to be lacking hundreds of available beds. The Salt Lake City temporary shelter is averaging 118 using beds (averaging 84 men and 34 women) and they often have a lot of items. The new storage system only has 20 spots available but are for those who are under case management. The result is that there are many homeless camping in the parks, open spaces and vacant buildings in Salt Lake City. Recently, there were 16 camping at Library Square and dozens camping in Taufer Park next to the Liberty Senior Center.

The problems with many homeless men refusing to go to the South Salt Lake shelter is evidence that the homeless want to be near stores and restaurants instead of being in an area that is away from homeless services like the Weigand Center.

Utah has also decided that drug users generally commit victimless crimes (I disagree.), so homeless drug users are not usually jailed. We are not allowed to stop homeless camping and panhandling due to court cases. These facts seem to suggest that we can’t force homeless to act the way we want with quality of life enforcement and trying to ticket and jail homeless campers.

The successful solution to homelessness should result in no one walking around or sleeping on the street with their belongings. Despite Marbut’s suggestion that housing first does not work, the only way to get homeless off the street is to put them into housing.

I have several questions for Marbut: Until we can build enough affordable housing with mixed income (to decrease enabling substance abuse) or inclusionary zoning, isn’t the best solution a convenient, secure and 24-hour storage system? It would allow those who want to work, to store their gear while they work. Wouldn’t it make sense to set up a camping area for homeless and their vehicles near homeless services instead of far from services? And finally, wouldn’t it make sense to have the most successful homeless services organization in Utah, the Weigand Center, manage homeless services instead of a group of developers and politicians?

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.

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