Tribune Editorial: Homelessness is not a challenge that can be met piecemeal

Picking the right person to be Utah’s new homeless services coordinator is key to the state’s new approach.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marina and Jeanette Padilla from the Food Justice Coalition, talk to Kevin Thrower while passing out information on how people experiencing homelessness can claim their covid stimulus checks, on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

The homeless are sometimes referred to as the invisible people. Even when we see them — individually on the street, gathered in encampments in parks or under bridges — we act as if we don’t.

That selective blindness becomes a little more difficult when, as is increasingly the case in Salt Lake City, we can see the effects of homelessness even when there are not actually any homeless people in view.

Sometimes it is what the homeless themselves leave behind. Abandoned tents and other makeshift shelters, trash, needles, even human waste. It is also, sometimes, the steps businesses, homeowners and others take to deter one or a dozen homeless persons from setting up camp on their sidewalk or front lawn.

Park strips in front of some homes, businesses and even public buildings dedicated to helping people have been changed from grass to stones as a way of making the space less attractive to those who, as the British say, are sleeping rough. Benches have been removed from city parks, or replaced with the kind of bench that has an armrest in the middle, making it a place to sit but not lie down. Outside window sills have spikes.

Some of that isn’t due to homelessness at all. More of us are conscious of the fact that we live in a desert and grass is absurdly high-maintenance, especially in the midst of a prolonged drought. Spikes in window wells also repel pigeons.

Advocates for the homeless object to such actions, noting that it is one more step toward dehumanizing those without shelter, treating them like vermin and bothersome critters. That can only have a demoralizing effect on those who are already down on themselves due to bad luck, mental health issues or substance abuse.

On an individual level, though, such deterrents are perfectly understandable. One senior center, shop or home can’t solve the homelessness problem on its own. Each of them has every right to guard their property.

That’s where Utah’s new approach to helping the homeless, and all of the rest of us in the process, comes in.

Gov. Spencer Cox last week signed House Bill 347, which creates a new homeless services coordinator, an Office of Homeless Services and a Utah Homelessness Council. All of that is designed to take the kind of comprehensive approach to homelessness that we’ve been dancing around for years in fits and starts and never with enough money.

If Cox hires as coordinator someone who is not a political crony but a person with the experience and management heft to keep things moving, if the council is made up of dedicated people — and if the governor and the Legislature come through with enough money to provide needed services — we may have a chance to deal with homelessness by dealing with it, not ignoring it.

The closing and destruction of The Road Home homeless shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood was supposedly made possible by the creation of three, much smaller, homeless services centers. Those facilities have as their mission more than the overnight alleviation of cold and hunger, providing the homeless with a path to self-sufficiency or, when that isn’t possible, permanent shelter. Each of them is new, clean, staffed, policed and, in theory, welcoming enough to attract those who need help while not frightening the neighbors.

So far, they are also grossly underfunded and, beyond that, too small to face the issue. It will be the task of the new homeless coordinator and council to convince the Legislature and the private and philanthropic parts of our community not only that more money is needed but also that there is a plan for spending it that is at once efficient and humane.

Help is also on the way along other tracks, with more resources being put into mental health services and state and city officials looking for ways to both preserve existing stocks of affordable housing and to create more. The new flow of federal funds intended to fight off the economic and human loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should be tapped to fund such efforts, especially to help people on the margins avoid eviction or foreclosure.

With luck and dedication, there is reason to hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to take an honest look at our communities and know that the reason we do not see the homeless is that there truly are not nearly so many of them.