Solutions Utah: Salt Lake needs more than money and housing to solve the homeless problem

Without persistent accountability and public safety, housing merely becomes warehousing and unenforced laws encourage lawbreakers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The grass park strip, where unsheltered people used to pitch their tents, has been replaced by giant rocks on the corner of 700 South and State Street, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

In offering solutions to our homeless crisis, pundits and politicians seem fixated on two concepts: more housing or more money.

With the state’s spending on homelessness and affordable housing hovering over $580 million since 2016, private donations reportedly topping $680 million and Salt Lake City boasting about 777 new units of supportive housing — according to a recent campaign flier sent by Erin Mendenhall’s mayoral campaign — is it realistic for the city or state to think it can build or spend its way out of this crisis? The facts suggest otherwise.

Homelessness keeps rising in Utah — by 14% in 2021 and 10% in 2022. The January 2023 Point in Time (PIT) count numbers were up 9.6% in Salt Lake County from 2022 and first-time homelessness jumped 53%.

CNN and The Wall Street Journal recently reported that California, which has the nation’s largest homeless population, spent $17 billion on homeless in just the last four years. Both concluded the problem is just getting worse. Housing is the centerpiece of California’s homeless strategy.

While housing and money belong in the prescriptive mix, they should not distract policy makers and elected officials from the crucial fundamentals: a strong case management model based on accountability and tangible results rather than feel-good reports; removal of chronic criminals within the homeless population from our streets; and early intervention with long-term treatment protocols for drug addicts and those experiencing mental illness.

Without persistent accountability and public safety, housing merely becomes warehousing and unenforced laws encourage lawbreakers. Failure to divert high-risk behaviors from others who have lost their job, apartment or home only conflate the problem.

A good example is the new $16.4 million downtown Magnolia Apartments. Hailed as a permanent supportive housing solution, drug deals and prostitution occur in these taxpayer subsidized units with quartz countertops, that have a current fair market value of $400,000, according to our sources at MountainWest Commercial Real Estate. Just this week — in broad daylight — a colleague of mine, while hosting a federal government official, saw drug addicts shooting up in front of the Magnolia.

Drug use in public housing is a felony, but rarely enforced. Forty-nine percent of the unsheltered population interviewed during the PIT Count report substance abuse disorders.

A similar mindset permeates our homeless resources centers (HRCs). Before they opened in 2019, service providers and the city made contractual agreements that these facilities would be temporary “way stations” where the homeless would be stabilized, offered appropriate support and transitioned into either treatment options, gainful productivity or housing alternatives. The safety of those inside the HRCs and the security of surrounding neighborhoods and businesses were also guaranteed.

Both agreements have been broken.

During the PIT Count last January and in other encounters, homeless people have told our volunteers they won’t stay in our shelters because of the conditions — personal property being stolen from secure private lockers, illicit drug use, sexual assaults and spread of illnesses and infections like MRSA.

Before more housing is built, there needs to be a hard look about what’s happening within the walls of our homeless centers, permanent supportive housing and moderate to low-income units — whether it’s the HRCs, the Magnolia, Palmer Court or dozens of other places.

Merely putting someone with compromised life skills or severe addictions into public housing only disguises the problem — it doesn’t solve it.

Higher wages for case management workers won’t entirely fix this either unless those serving on the front lines see accountability, vision and a results-oriented operational model. Let’s take a deeper look at the 200% turnover rate among HRC workers recently reported. Is it just money?

Outside the shelters, businesses report tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Fearing higher insurance premiums, many of these small businesses stopped reporting them. Human feces and discarded needles from illegal drug use have pushed some to leave the city, while others say they are steadily losing customers.

In private conversations with our members and business leaders, we have learned that security services at one major downtown shopping area cost $1 million a year, while another nearby spends $300,000. These conversations have also revealed that sports venues and retail places in Ballpark, North Temple and other downtown locations all invest in private security firms to combat crime from the homeless. None of these retailers or organizations have ever received mitigation funds from the city to offset their costs or damages. One prominent global firm with offices in Salt Lake told us their corporate headquarters rates Salt Lake as one of the least safe among all of its worldwide offices.

We must think beyond such rigid comments offered by current city and county leaders, including police and criminal justice officials who say, “We can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.” Some crimes — regardless of who’s committing them — demand a response from our police department and criminal justice system. Placing the homeless in a special, protected class will only encourage more criminal behavior and won’t provide them beneficial treatment programs.

For those unwilling or unable to trade life on the streets for safer and healthier accommodations, accountability also applies here. Permissiveness won’t solve the web of addiction nor make our parks, neighborhoods or streets livable or safe.

Rick Graham

Rick Graham is chair of Solutions Utah, a nonprofit advocacy group. He served in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County government for 38 years as a department administrator, including deputy mayor in Salt Lake County.