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Critical mass: How did Salt Lake get to this state of homelessness?

SALT LAKE CITY — As conditions on some streets of Utah’s capital city deteriorate, data shows more people are accessing emergency shelters and homeless services.

The pressure has sparked an unprecedented effort to improve the system that serves the city’s vulnerable homeless population and address ripple effects that include a critical mass of people that’s close to overwhelming the Rio Grande neighborhood.

How did Salt Lake City get to this state?

Experts say a combination of factors contribute to these conditions: a dire shortage of affordable and deeply affordable housing, low wages, and growing rates of opiate addiction. One veteran homeless services provider even says the Occupy Salt Lake movement may have played a role.

Later this fall, the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Jackie Biskupski are expected to announce possible sites for new homeless resource centers to be built at scattered sites in the city, followed by a public process to select four locations.

As public attention is intently focused on “where” planned homeless resource centers will be located, a larger issue looms — Utah's acute shortage of deeply affordable housing.

“I think we’re at a crisis point,” says Janice Kimball, director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake County.

The authority quit accepting applications for Section 8 housing vouchers in 2014 after its waiting list swelled to 11,000 households. Section 8 vouchers assist very low-income people who cannot afford to rent decent, safe and good quality housing. The program provides subsidies to assist households with monthly housing costs.

But those who work their way up the waiting list find few options available in their price range, a challenge exacerbated by a tight rental market. The vacancy rate in the Salt Lake Valley has dropped below 3 percent.

"The rents are so high and it’s so hard to find decent low-income units. They have a certain percentage of people who make it through the waiting list, get the voucher and then they can’t find a place to use it in six months' time and then they lose the voucher. They have to turn it back in," said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit organization that serves and advocates for low-income Utahns.

At Landing Point Apartments, 25 people are on a waiting list for a one-bedroom apartment that's renting for $700 a month.

"It's really difficult because people need an apartment as soon as possible," said on-site property manager Maria Hernandez.

Christian Cecena, a case manager for Volunteers of America-Utah, works to house in rental units clients who are chronically homeless, have a disability and have agreed to case management through a "Shelter-Plus" voucher.

In a market with so few vacancies and fewer yet in a price point that a voucher will fund — around $650 a month for a one-bedroom apartment if the client pays the utilities — options are extremely limited.

Cecena has been assisting one client who was evicted from her previous rental because she left it unoccupied for a few days and gang members broke in and squatted there.

Because she has an eviction on her record, she needs to apply to multiple apartment complexes to improve the odds that one landlord will take a chance on her. "My client has been going to donate plasma as much as possible to raise money for application fees," Cecena said.

For those able to find a place to live on their own, they spend a large portion of their incomes on housing. A new state report says one-third of adults in intergenerational poverty pay more than half of their incomes on housing, which leaves little remaining to buy food, clothing and transportation.

City's plan

Salt Lake City Council Chairman James Rogers said the council identified homelessness and affordable housing as priorities seven months ago.

At recent press conference held to announce the city's, county's and state's next steps on homelessness, Rogers announced the city will commit, long term, more than $4 million toward the development of affordable housing "and will dedicate, at a to-be-determined percentage, (funds) to transitional, very low-income housing."

There is a need for some 43,000 units of affordable housing statewide, according to state officials. In Salt Lake City itself, experts say 7,400 units are needed.

Michael Anderson of the national nonprofit Center for Community Change's National Housing Trust Fund Project, says Utah is hardly alone in this predicament as the shortage of affordable housing has contributed to a number of U.S. cities overwhelmed by the homelessness in their midst. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, Portland and Honolulu, have declared states of emergency.

"So, when we start to think, ‘How do we unravel this?’ it starts with a place to call home. In a nation as rich as ours, there’s no reason. And when we even look at going back to look at the federal subsidies that we give to the mortgage interest deduction, if we just flipped that money and put that money into vouchers, we could have vouchers for every single person who's on a wait list right now in the country today," Anderson said.

But developing housing for people with lower incomes takes a carefully assembled package of federal low-income housing tax credits, additional funding from state or local governments, andsometimes private investment to ensure commercial mortgages can be met.

A new federal law allows developers to tap rental vouchers to fund new projects. Some cities have also passed ordinances that give builders development rights or government-owned land in exchange for a promise to build affordable units.

Salt Lake City is considering some of these options as part of its overall strategy to address the city's need for affordable to deeply affordable housing.

History repeating?

Patrick Poulin, who was the first director of what is now the Road Home, said the shelter opened in the late 1980s as the state was emerging from a difficult recession and growing challenges with homelessness.

"It's interesting because at that time we called it the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center. The whole idea was to be building more resources and services to the homeless. That's what we did and it was about an eight-year lag. It's curious to me because it's about a six- to eight-year lag since the last recession. I have to wonder if we're not seeing the fallout of that last recession," Poulin said.

"If you think about it, what happened to all people that got squeezed out eight to 10 years ago? You would predict that we might see this homelessness building, which we have. Then when I think about the lack of affordable housing, where are they going to go?"

As Utah's economy struggled to emerge from the recession in the 1980s, there were many abandoned homes controlled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the community shelter leased as transitional housing for $1 a month, he said.

Today's rental market is tight, and affordable housing is becoming "nonexistent," said Poulin, who now heads the Salt Lake office of International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency.

International Rescue Committee, too, works hard to ensure its clients have access to clean, decent and affordable housing. "It's challenging for us. We had 110 people come in during September. We were able to get them into housing and we're working really hard to keep them in. But it's a challenge," he said.

Some advocates say full Medicaid expansion would go a long way to help struggling Utahns, but others like Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, says communities with full expansion are dealing with the same challenges.

Preventing and addressing homelessness starts and ends with the supply of deeply affordable housing, he says.

The most visible evidence of that phenomenon is the critical mass of homeless people and others in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Some blame the presence of homeless service providers, but the issue is more complex than that.

Land use decisions dating back two decades play a role.

The downtown shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande was once hemmed in between railroad tracks along 400 West and 500 West.

But in the late 1990s, the tracks were moved to accommodate development of The Gateway and usher in the city's light-rail system. Development of retail and other businesses continued to move west, which meant more frequent interactions between businesses, users of homeless services and others who congregate in the area.

In April 2015, city officials unveiled development plans for Station Center, a mixed-use urban neighborhood west of the historic Rio Grande Depot.

Planners envision Station Center as a mixed-use urban neighborhood with retail, commercial and residential development on about 9 acres between the Depot and UTA’s Salt Lake Central Station, which will push development further west.

Opioid crisis

To make matters more challenging, the nation is dealing with a crisis of opiate addiction. People who sell drugs hide among homeless people in the Pioneer Park area. The 600 South exit off I-15 provides easy access to people who want to buy heroin or other drugs.

Drug treatment providers say people who become addicted to prescription pain killers move on to heroin when they can no longer obtain prescription drugs.

Some of the people diverted into treatment during Operation Diversion in the Rio Grande area were young women who have become addicted to heroin and are homeless, said Tim Whalen, Salt Lake County's director of Behavioral Health.

Police say they believe they arrested a number of drug dealers preying on the most vulnerable people in the neighborhood.

Here again, Utah is hardly alone in this epidemic. Leaders of other large cities say fallout of opiate addiction and lack of treatment resources have been a contributing factor in growing homelessness in their communities, too.

When Seattle declared a state of emergency in November 2015, 44 people had died on its streets, nearly half classified as involving drugs, alcohol or both, according to the Seattle Times.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013 found that drug overdose was a leading cause of death among homeless adults in Boston from 2003 to 2008. Eighty one percent of those overdoses cases involved opioid drugs.

Only show in town

Except for its family resource center in Midvale, the only large-scale homeless shelter in Utah is the Road Home's community shelter. Smaller shelters such as Ogden's Lantern House, which can house 300 people, have opened in the past two years, but none has the capacity of Road Home's downtown shelter.

So part of the problem is that Salt Lake City has historically done the heavy lifting on serving homeless people along the Wasatch Front. So needy people come to Salt Lake City — some because they've heard about Utah's strong economy and low unemployment rate because they feel there could be opportunities, or others who simply have no other place to go.

More than 1,200 people turned to the Road Home for shelter this past week, 281 of them children, said Michelle Flynn, the nonprofit organization's associate executive director of programs.

The shelter reports growing demand from families, single men and a significant spike in single women seeking shelter services.

Utah's homelessness issue is largely homegrown. Well over 80 percent of people who use the Road Home shelter are Utahns, says Flynn.

Occupy Salt Lake

Chris Croswhite, executive of the Rescue Mission, says conditions in the neighborhood started to change, too, after Occupy Salt Lake set up camp in Pioneer Park and near the Gallivan Center in the fall of 2011.

Homeless people live on the fringes of society, he explains. They are often refused the use of restrooms operated by businesses unless they have money to buy goods or services.

But many were welcomed into the encampments of the occupiers, where some people learned they could essentially take over a public space with impunity, although organizers were required at one point to obtain permits that allowed them to camp.

But until one participant died in his tent of what has been described as either carbon monoxide poisoning or a drug overdose, the group carried on despite worsening public health conditions.

Finally, on Nov. 12, 2011, Salt Lake police cleared the park, an eviction carried out peaceably.

But Croswhite says he believes lessons were learned about "mob rule. If they create a mass of people, that group of people can effectively control an area simply because of the sheer number of people."

The tent city in Pioneer Park "was largely unchecked. That educated our homeless population that they could create a similar environment by gathering together a large number of people in one location, such as 500 West. That's all supposition and it's all anecdotal, but it make a lot of sense to me," he said.

All hands on deck

Poulin said he believes Salt Lake County's collective impact process, the city's efforts to find locations for four resource centers and promises of continued support from the state will result in solutions.

In the past two weeks, law enforcement and treatment providers have worked jointly on Operation Diversion, three separate events in which police are attempting to purge drug dealers from the area and funnel people on the streets who are struggling with addiction, mental health and physical health problems into treatment.

Some communities, such as Denver, have bonded $150 million to jump-start its efforts to provide more affordable housing, another option the Salt Lake City Council is considering.

"That type of foresight would do us well here. The homelessness is what we see but underlying is the affordable housing and the type of jobs available to people and the benefits that are provided for them," he said.

Poulin said he is heartened by wide cross section of leaders working on Utah's homeless issue.

"It's showing some good leadership, some good vision. I know it can be contentious but I'm glad they're taking it head on right now."