Marcie Belton and Jen Markelz: Homeless need more mental health services

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man moves his belongings up 200 South, on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

Homelessness is pervasive in Salt Lake City. It is estimated that 2,297 individuals are experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake Valley, which has increased 9% since 2022.

While Salt Lake Valley has done a steady job creating more housing opportunities for homeless individuals (total beds have increased from 5,094 to 5,975 from 2021 to 2022), there needs to be more of a focus on mental health and rehabilitative services to help individuals heal, gain independence and assimilate into society.

In November of 2022, Salt Lake City officials discussed the issues around homelessness after visiting Miami-Dade County, Florida for inspiration. Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill both expressed a need to change our siloed system to a more integrated system with a focus on mental health. While officials agreed the current system was not working, no plan was presented going forward.

Law enforcement officers were also on board with changes. Chief of Police Mike Brown stated, “Mental health issues are not a crime, being homeless is not a crime. Yet what do we do when there are issues and concerns in our community? We find over and over it’s just a revolving door where they come back to the street. It’s not the help they need.”

In January of 2023, KUER reported Salt Lake City spent 84% of its $2.75 million grant to hire and equip 12 new police officers, “dedicated to homeless response.” There was no evidence of funds being allocated to mental health services in the article. It is unclear how much, if any, funds were geared towards the integrated system changes Salt Lake City officials claimed were critical to solving our homeless problems just months earlier.

Libertas Institute criminal justice policy analyst, Amy Pomeroy, stated, “We do police officers a disservice when we expect them to address homelessness, especially when we haven’t given them the tools to do so… funds would be better spent on addressing the persistent mental illness which is at the root of chronic homelessness.”

According to Utah Stories, an online website dedicated to being the “Voice of Local Utah,” the state has one of the “highest per capita rates of mental illness” and “the demand for mental health far exceeds the supply”. And while there are organizations dedicated to mental health care services for homeless individuals, the need outweighs availability and resources.

The Huntsman family is currently working on a facility to provide more treatment and beds to homeless Utahns struggling with mental illness, which plans to open sometime in 2024. Otherside Village is also planning to provide housing to individuals struggling with mental health disorders. Mayor Mendenhall is behind the Otherside Village, however, it will only be able to accommodate a small number of people.

While any help is a step in the right direction, it is clear that the urgency to address the growing issue of homelessness in Utah far outweighs the solutions, begging the question of why so much of the above-mentioned grant went to police services.

Sim Gill stated just weeks ago on Utah Stories, “Our entire mental illness program is abysmal and it’s broken.” There are currently 300 beds in the Utah state hospital in a state population of nearly 3 million people. It’s not enough.

There is a clear sense of urgency to address this issue now. We need more spaces and funds allocated to mental health services to address the root causes of homelessness and promote rehabilitation.

Marcie Belton

Marcie Belton is a mom of four and a first-year graduate student at the University of Utah College of Social Work. She loves spending time with her family and enjoying outdoor activities.

Jennifer Markelz, op-ed

Jen Markelz is a first-year graduate student working toward her master of social work at the University of Utah. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing and spending time outside with friends.