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Utah still has a homeless problem

A homeless man tries to stay warm in Salt Lake City.
A homeless man tries to stay warm in Salt Lake City.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archives

If you want to get under Scott Howell’s skin, question the motives behind the Pioneer Park Coalition, the nonprofit group he is associated with that is pushing for changes to the way homeless services are provided in Salt Lake City and, perhaps, to where those services are provided.

“We’re talking about human souls,” he said during a recent meeting with the Deseret News Editorial Board, after I had confronted him with the accusations of his critics, who say he is driven by business interests alone.

He goes as far as to draw a map of the area surrounding the current Road Home shelter location, pointing to large tracts surrounding it that he notes are owned by the city’s Redevelopment Agency, not private developers.

“If this had one ounce of greed attached to it, I would not be a part of it,” he said.

The brewing political struggle over the future of the Road Home and homeless services in Salt Lake City has a twinge of irony to it. That’s because, as far as the rest of the nation is concerned, Salt Lake City has solved its homeless problem.

Few things have given Utah better national publicity recently than the “Housing First” program that has, according to those in charge, dropped the number of chronically homeless by 91 percent in 10 years. Simply put, the state provides apartments to anyone who has been homeless more than a year, then worries about treating the problems causing the person to be homeless.

Even the sarcastic and satirical Jon Stewart featured the program on The Daily Show earlier this year, with a segment that featured a reporter wandering the streets of Salt Lake City, searching in vain for a homeless person.

He didn’t look hard enough, apparently.

The key to understanding the apparent contradiction between Utah’s success with homelessness and its growing homeless problem was summed up in a paragraph hidden deep within a laudatory Los Angeles Times story. The chronic homeless consume 60 percent of the services available for the homeless, but they make up “a fraction of the overall homeless population of 14,000.”

The rest frequent the area in and around the Road Home on South Rio Grande Street, which has become a magnet for drug dealers, prostitutes and others trying to prey on the legitimately homeless while servicing others who come from more respectable neighborhoods.

Howell says people in the area are becoming more violent and aggressive. And yes, owners of nearby businesses are complaining about the problems, as well as about how hard it is to persuade banks to loan them money to develop their properties. I’ve met with some of them recently, too. Their involvement has critics calling the coalition’s efforts a thinly disguised play for real estate. But you don’t have to spend long in the neighborhood to see there may be other, less-devious reasons for their concerns.

Mayor Ralph Becker has appointed a commission to evaluate the problem, using such local luminaries as Gail Miller and former Mayor Palmer DePaulis. Some people want more money spent on “Housing First,” but that isn’t likely to solve the problem along Rio Grande Street.

As with most political fights, the bluster has little basis in truth; and as with most efforts to change how institutions run, resistance is strong.

Coalition members I’ve spoken with simply want the shelter to establish methods that can be demonstrated to help those it serves. And they want all service providers to be in one spot.

Their concern about location has to do with the way Rio Grande Street, a through street, has become a virtual drive-through for troublemakers.

The issue may boil down to whether you believe wealthy landowners can have human concerns that go beyond mere profits. Bryson Garbett, president of Garbett Homes and a coalition member, answered that for me last year when he put on grubbies and lived at the shelter as a homeless person for three days.

As for Howell, he is the former Democratic leader of the state Senate — a rare breed in Utah that seldom gets confused with worrying about profits over people.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.