Jan Deelstra: If homeless shelters need staff, then hire the homeless

Hiring the homeless with a living wage is the long-term solution to the problem.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks about the Magnolia, the new 65-unit permanent supportive housing complex for people who have experienced homelessness during a news conference, on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

First, let me begin by saying that it’s wonderful that attention is being placed onto the enormous challenge of solving the problem of unsheltered families and individuals in Utah, particularly in the Salt Lake City area.

It’s nice that Gov. Spencer Cox has joined forces with the incomparable Pamela Atkinson in attempts to solve the homeless crisis in Utah. Indeed, asking for donations by way of tax filings is a nice start that also serves to keep this challenge front and center in the minds of taxpayers and advocated. But there really needs to be more done that asking for a donation at tax time. The crisis does not wait until tax time, and the inclement weather is a real threat to survival for many.

Public service announcements and continuously shining the light into the corners of homelessness as well as providing permanent solutions that go beyond asking for money that may or may not reach the roots of the challenges are called for. As a greater success channel, perhaps someone would be willing to donate an empty lot for a designated campsite or open a building in a location that serves everyone without annoying the local businesses. (The Salt Lake City Sears location comes to mind.) Bring in portable bathrooms, handwashing facilities and running water. Educate the homeless on the availability of recreation centers for showers. Provide every willing unsheltered person with a job opportunity.

With the challenges of homelessness in mind, I am seriously compelled to address some recent stories I’ve been reading and seeing on the news. At this moment, at issue is the request for volunteers to serve the needs at the shelters. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is out there for her photo op, asking for volunteers, when it’s obvious that the people who are needing the services are also in need of work.

There is not a fat paintbrush solution, and this is not suggesting otherwise. What is suggested, is that jobs that pay a living wage be offered to the homeless population so that they can earn their keep, increase their self-worth, perhaps learn some new transferable trade skills and fulfill the needs of the shelters. There is no need to look at hiring, as Mendenhall suggest, “skilled” professionals where there is an entire population outside of the doors.

Also, what I know for sure is that bulldozing the camps is never going to be a viable solution and is only fueling the anger and hostility towards the Salt Lake City Police Department and against Mendenhall. There are plenty of vacant properties that could be appointed as campgrounds, and set up with toilets, water, etc. Continually bulldozing the camps is unforgivable, and no doubt going to cost the mayor any chance of reelection. Bulldozing is not the solution and it costs taxpayers a lot to keep up this horrific and inhumane action against the homeless population.

This commentary is not meant to be disrespectful. It’s simply a means to offer a solution in the most expedient way possible as frigid temperatures are upon us. It truly seems, by this juncture in time, we should, as a humanitarian measure of our commitment to all, solve this crisis of homelessness. It’s the least we can do.

There appears to be a tendency to set ourselves apart from the unsheltered population. Perhaps instead of seeing them as “lesser than” and ourselves as “greater than” we could bridge that gap. Never forget that we are each human, and that we are equally vulnerable.

Jan Deelstra lives in Salt Lake City.