Tribune Editorial: Utah homeless services are still without vision

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shelter the Homeless and Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS) holds a public open house at the Gail Miller Resource Center on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.

Political leaders at the state and local level put their heads together and came up with yet another new way to address the growing problem of homelessness in Salt Lake City.

There is already reason to worry that it’s not going to work.

If it doesn’t, it will be time for our leaders to recognize that we cannot just wonk our way out of a problem that has so many causes, so many victims and no easy solutions. And no solutions that don’t also involve the willingness to spend a lot more money and otherwise be much more aggressive in addressing the problem.

The latest reason for concern is the announcement Thursday that Catholic Community Services will not renew its contract to operate one of the three homeless service centers that are the core of the new approach. Church officials say they still support the state plan for helping the homeless, but that running one of the centers was distracting from their other programs aimed at helping the same population.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City was not so ungrateful as to blame its decision on the chronic underfunding of the whole campaign by the state. But that is clearly a big problem.

Many months ago, growing pressure from the gentrifying effects of a developing downtown reached critical mass. Such worthies as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, then-Salt Lake County Mayor (and now congressman) Ben McAdams, among others, came up with a plan to scatter services for the homeless into four — no, make that three — service centers.

The old Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood provided basic services, saving a great many people from freezing and starving and helping to move more than a few into self-sustaining lives of shelter. A centralized approach for relief of the homeless had its advantages. There was no need to provide transportation or refer those in need of help to some other facility miles away.

But there were also problems, as the area attracted drug traffickers and gave the neighborhood a reputation as a dirty and dangerous no-go zone.

The concept of distributing the homeless population has merit, but it’s terribly complicated and much more expensive.

The total number of beds in those three facilities — which all opened last year — was 400 fewer than were available in the old Road Home shelter. In theory, that would not be a problem because the new centers would be significantly more active in addressing the causes and effects of homelessness in each individual, so that they moved out of the system, making room for others to be helped.

But, as we noted in this space back in May, there was serious reason to be concerned that politics, and politicians all seeking higher office, played a big role in rushing toward a complex solution with woefully inadequate funds. At the time, Cox scoffed at the estimates by service providers that they would need a least $40 million for the project and the state, rapidly growing in population and rolling in surplus funds, coughed up only about half of that.

In the short term, the new centers have proven inadequate to the task. There are still encampments in public areas and at least one protest that led to a police sweep of the land around City Hall. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, with the backing of the City Council, stepped into the breach by opening a temporary shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood.

As Helen Keller once said, the only thing worse than blindness and deafness is lacking vision. So far, it appears that the state has lacked the vision necessary to really address homelessness, not just move it around.