“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Since 2014, the Pioneer Park Coalition has been organizing, meeting, lobbying, cajoling, studying and reporting in an effort to ease the problems associated with homelessness in Salt Lake City.
Residents and business owners in the Pioneer Park and Rio Grande neighborhoods were understandably fed up with petty crime, drug sales, prostitution, vandalism and the occasional assault. And human poop in the doorways. Someone always mentioned human poop in the doorways.
When coalition leaders started coming in to visit The Salt Lake Tribune’s Editorial Board, all those years ago, they made it clear that they understood that the existing shelter could not just be swept aside. Facing homelessness would need a new, more aggressive approach and new facilities.
What was never mentioned by the coalition or the many state and local officials who joined its worthy cause was any realization that deep poverty and homelessness are not bugs in our Republican-dominated system of crony capitalism, but a feature. A sword on a thread hanging over the heads of working-class people so that they will remain pliant and hard-working.
The theory that we would lead the homeless to what was often referred to as “the dignity of work” has merit. But it is too often a sick joke in a state that has a paltry minimum wage, no active union movement, health care access that is mediocre at best, laws that tilt ridiculously in favor of landlords over tenants and political dominance by real estate developers.
With all their study and work and personal, sometimes heart-breaking, interactions with homeless human beings, the thread that seemed to run through the coalition’s approach has been that the homeless have done something wrong and that only when they are ready to repent of the error of their ways can they be helped.
The state bought, closed and eventually razed the Road Home shelter and sold the land to a developer. They built three new “homeless service centers,” with room for hundreds fewer people than could be stacked into the old shelter every day, on the theory that those who showed up at those doors would be cleaned up, put in touch with mental health and addiction services and whatever disability or veterans benefits they might be entitled to and moved on to more-or-less permanent housing with, if needed, wrap-around services to keep them on the path to independence.
The service centers were chronically underfunded from the git-go and there has never been enough affordable or, as the experts say, deeply affordable housing ready to take in the graduates. And now people who live and work in the neighborhoods are complaining that, rather than end the squalor that used to surround the old shelter, we have merely moved it around, to the service centers and other places the homeless congregate.
So now the Pioneer Park Coalition has a new plan. It includes a legal campsite for homeless people, monitored and policed. Having spent pages and pages outlining what a bomb a homeless shelter is for any neighborhood, the report doesn’t specify where such a camp would be established.
It also calls for new measures of accountability for the service centers, counting the people who come in and whether, when and where they go out again. The idea is that the system won’t really need the extra money the current managers always say they need if they are better managed.
The report also calls for more of the people who are committing crimes to be arrested, offered a chance for treatment and, if they decline, sent to jail. Just for a little while. It may sound mean, the coalition leaders say, but jail is actually more compassionate than freezing to death on the street.
Loved ones of the far-too-many people who have died of violence or neglect in the state’s jails might want a word.
The report cites, favorably, the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention. The idea that cracking down on minor crimes will make a neighborhood safer and discourage it from falling into further disrepair and squalor. It’s the approach to law enforcement that, when it was rolled out by the not-yet-totally crazy New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s, led to charges of police brutality and racism, mass incarceration and left the city holding the bag for some $400 million in legal settlements.
The problems faced by the homeless here are also endemic in several blue states, with higher minimum wages and better health care access. Higher and better, but still not enough.
Some among us are in desperate need of mental health and drug treatment. Some do need to go to jail.
But to really face the problem of homelessness in our community, many people at the bottom of the ladder need not to be corralled but empowered with, basically, money, directly into the pockets of those who live on the street, so they can demand the housing they need.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is probably facing everlasting punishment for not doing more to help the homeless people he passes on the street.