Christopher Smart: Our homeless crisis can’t be out of sight, out of mind

Stagnant wages, skyrocketing rents and other macroeconomic factors create more homelessness.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jayden Watson and his girlfriend Maddison Hackford live unsheltered on the bank of the Jordan River in Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has been taking flak lately for the increasingly visible homeless people in Utah’s capital city — as though Salt Lake County, the state of Utah and numerous non-government organizations (NGOs) aren’t also focused on this perplexing problem facing the entire nation.

Tents thrown up here and there around town and folks sleeping wherever there’s a patch of grass remind us of income disparity, lack of mental health services and the addiction epidemic that we would prefer to be out of sight and out of mind.

In August 2017, then-Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes pushed Operation Rio Grande to remove unsheltered homeless people from Rio Grande Street between 300 South and 500 South where they were concentrated. The area had become a lawless open-air drug market where some were shooting up in broad daylight and sprawled face down on the sidewalk.

The optics of Operation Rio Grande were good at the time, but it drove many homeless campers into neighborhoods and retail districts where they became more conspicuous and pointed up the critical need for sanitation and mental health services.

Public criticism of city leaders comes as sure as the Dog Days of summer: Why don’t they do something about homelessness? Can’t we just pack these people off somewhere?

More and more, working folks can’t afford a roof over their heads due to many years of stagnate wages and increasing rents. Nonetheless, the public should realize the homeless population is not static. People who were homeless last year are not necessarily homeless now. In fiscal year 2021, the average length of stay in a homeless shelter was 68 days, according to the Utah Office of Homeless Services.

Although public consternation is focused on those living on the streets, the shelter numbers do reflect trends.

The rate at which people who had found housing and then returned to homelessness remained at 29 percent during that period, indicating the daunting challenge of the crisis.

About 3,565 people were homeless in Utah on any given day in 2021, according to state records. They include single moms with youngsters, young adults 18-24, veterans, but only 688 “chronically” homeless people — defined as being homeless for at least 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the three years.

Some 7,712 Utahns were homeless for the first time in fiscal 2021 — nearly 1,000 more folks than the previous 12 months, revealing growing economic strains on low-income workers in the wake of COVID.

Critics should acknowledge the efforts being made here to deal with the crisis, caused in large part by macro-economic, social ills and other factors, such as the pandemic.

With the aid of some state funding, local officials embarked in 2019 on a plan to build three new homeless resources centers to replace the aging shelter on Rio Grande Street. The facilities are aimed at coordinating resources so people could find housing within weeks rather than months. But real estate prices jumped, rents skyrocketed and the strategy was stymied for a dearth of affordable housing.

The lack of affordable housing has been decades in the making. Then-President Ronald Reagan slashed the federal housing budget by 80 percent and it never recovered.

In 1998, Congress passed the Faircloth Amendment that limits the number of public housing units federal agencies can build. It prevents any net increase in public housing stock from the number of units as of October 1, 1999.

Recently, state lawmakers allocated $55 million for affordable housing and services. The Salt Lake City Council approved $20 million for such lodgings earlier this year. But catching up with the housing crunch will take decades. Meanwhile, new apartment buildings are springing up like mushrooms in Salt Lake City, but offer few modestly-priced apartments.

Every major city is facing a homeless crisis. HUD estimates the population of homeless people to be more than 550,000 — although it could be much higher.

The United States can declare war on drugs and war on terror, but war on homelessness — well that’s a different matter altogether.

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart is a freelance journalist in Salt Lake City and author of Smart Bomb, which appears in City Weekly.