Jean Welch Hill: They don’t have homes, but they are still our fellow residents

History has shown we can make true progress on homelessness if we make it a priority.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A roadside camp in Provo on Monday, May 17, 2021.

What does it mean to be a resident of a city? According to legal definitions, our residence is where we would pay taxes, where we have voting rights, where we plan to make our home for the long term. Nothing in those definitions require a certain kind of home or tax bracket, just a sense of permanence. Thus, a low-wage worker who is not required to pay taxes is still a resident, just as a person moving from housing to homelessness does not lose residency.

What do residents expect of their city? Their county? Their state? Among other things, police protection, emergency assistance when needed, clean and safe streets, working traffic lights, walkable sidewalks. In short, all the things people experiencing homelessness need from their city, county, and state leaders as well.

Unfortunately, it is common for city leaders and residents to disavow the homeless as residents. Rather than seeing people living rough on a city’s sidewalks and in abandoned buildings or lots as residents in need of city services, homeless individuals tend to be viewed as a problem for residents, which are defined as only those with safe and comfortable housing. So much of our homelessness policy is based on the wants of those in stable living situations, rather than the needs of those with little to nothing, it is no wonder we continue to see the same issues repeatedly.

Government leaders at all levels insist there are not enough resources to meet the needs of our homeless friends. But it is not so much a question of resources as it is priorities. If we prioritized both the prevention and reduction of homelessness to functional zero (I.e., fewer people fall homeless and those that do are quickly, successfully rehoused with needed services to stay housed) political decisions about where to focus state resources would follow.

We have seen how prioritization of resources works. When business owners demanded action to clean up Rio Grande Street, resources freely flowed to the effort. Operation Rio Grande, unfortunately, maintained the status quo of focusing on the wants of the well-housed, in that case, business owners, so plans for the cleanup focused on law enforcement, leaving the critical second and third stages that would have benefitted the people on the streets – housing and employment – woefully underfunded and incomplete.

The state is drastically improving its focus on homeless services through the efforts of the recently created Homeless Services Coordinator and his office. I am hopeful that the collaboration we are seeing across statewide providers and the Homeless Services Office will encourage legislators to not only prioritize funding for homeless services but also shift its focus to the needs of those who are experiencing this deep poverty.

Salt Lake County is also deeply engaged in efforts to see homelessness from the perspective of those in need, dedicating resources to deeply affordable housing and working closely with providers to solve longstanding issues around homelessness.

But to sustain the long-term efforts that are needed to truly render experiences of homelessness brief, rare and non-recurring, citizens and local government leaders must shift our perspective from what businesses or homeowners want to what the most vulnerable resident of our cities, counties and states need.

Jean Hill

Jean Welch Hill is director of government liaison, Office of Life, Justice & Peace, for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City