The issue of where and how to offer centralized services for Salt Lake City’s homeless population is not yet at the point of push-comes-to-shove, but it’s getting close. There is pressure to alleviate problems in the newly gentrified Rio Grande district where most facilities are located, while organizations that serve the homeless are wary of plans that would constitute some form of forced exile of their clients from the downtown area.
There are compelling points of view on all sides of the discussion, which puts city leaders who will ultimately decide on a course of action between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Resolution will require strong leadership, and the worst thing that could happen would be for the city to shy away from making firm decisions for fear of political consequences.
Up to now, the city has done a remarkable job of addressing the problem and has received national recognition for virtually ending chronic homelessness. The city’s “housing first” concept has allowed a couple thousand people who were living long-term on the streets to acquire permanent shelter and support services, which have provided them stability. Those programs should certainly move forward, with even more public and private support, but, unfortunately, they are not likely to constitute a permanent solution.
At any given time, more than 10,000 people will be without a home, and many of them will find themselves drawn to the Pioneer Park and Rio Grande areas where the Road Home and other services are established. Not all of these people will be suitable candidates for the housing-first programs, but all will require some level of services. How and where to dispense them are the crux of the issue.
The Pioneer Park Coalition — a well-heeled group of community, business and development interests — recently brought to town a consultant who has gained national recognition for advocating a “campus” approach to offering homeless services. Robert Marbut, a homelessness consultant from Texas, is critical of Salt Lake’s current approach that scatters service providers throughout portions of the downtown area, arguing that it is more effective to concentrate services in a single place where people can receive around-the-clock focus and follow-up. He finds it troubling that homeless women with young children are forced to mix with adult men while seeking services. His perspective is compelling.
So is that of service providers who feel it is important that homeless people are welcome in the larger community and not led into a form of segregation by creation of a closed-in campus.
And there is the point of view — equally compelling — of residents and business owners in the Rio Grande area who are tired of the criminal activity that accompanies the long-term congregation of homeless people.
The city has created a Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission tasked with the duty of analyzing the current system and making recommendations that may include moving services from downtown. It will be a difficult task to complete without ruffling feathers in one quarter or another.
The good news is this: Salt Lake’s civic leaders have demonstrated a commitment to deal with the issue in a humane and compassionate way. The city’s heart is in the right place, but settling on the right place and manner to serve the homeless population is a tricky proposition with a lot of moving parts. We are hopeful a spirit of openness and collaboration will result in a sensible strategy that takes into account all perspectives and may be executed sooner than later.