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Support plan for homeless

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Homelessness has long been a vexing problem in big cities. Along the Wasatch Front, it has also been a problem for which many suburban cities, with some notable exceptions, refuse to take ownership. Salt Lake City, with its shelters, soup kitchens and grass-carpeted congregation points, such as Pioneer Park, has been thought by many to be handling the situation.

But that attitude has done little other than feed a misplaced sense of denial. The homeless, as Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini said this week, "are our people." They come from cities all over Utah and are separated from everyone else by a few strokes of bad luck, a mental illness or a chemical dependency — or perhaps by a combination of all three.

Salt Lake County's Long Range Planning Committee has adopted a plan that will both move the "chronic" homeless out of Salt Lake City's downtown and provide them the best chance to recover and become a part of mainstream society again. Given what is at stake, and the logical sense of the plan, it is worth supporting.

The plan is similar to one the state supports. If cities, property owners and developers go along with it, the "chronic" homeless — those who have been using shelters consistently for more than a year or four times during a three-year period — would be placed in subsidized homes throughout the county. Service providers, from mental health professionals to those who can aid with substance-abuse problems and help people obtain employment, would work intensely with these people to get them over their problems.

These homeless folks would not be those who are prone to violence. They already would have proven themselves capable of keeping the rules of a shelter and respecting the rights of others. But they would be among a subset of the homeless — officials put the figure at 12 percent — who end up costing society about 57 percent of the resources set aside to run shelters and provide food. The theory is simple. Get these people back on their feet and you would have many more resources to provide for the rest, who often need help only temporarily while re-establishing themselves.

Officials say similar programs have worked in New York City and Philadelphia. Homelessness never will be permanently solved, but a plan that targets the most difficult cases with intense treatment and support could indeed help many people who otherwise would be doomed to endure violence and disease.

Of course, cities and neighborhoods will have to be convinced to go along. Funding always will be a challenge, and neighborhoods may try to stand in the way of moving a homeless person nearby.

Which brings us back to the old stereotypes. Once people begin to understand that the down-and-out are human beings not so different from them, help will become less of a burden and more of an instinct.