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In our opinion: Homeless shelter selection: an arduous and complicated process

FILE: Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, and city councilman James Rogers announce 4 new homeless resource centers to be built around the city during a press conference at the City and County building on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.
FILE: Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, and city councilman James Rogers announce 4 new homeless resource centers to be built around the city during a press conference at the City and County building on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.
Deseret News

Salt Lake City officials recently announced four new homeless shelters to be built throughout the city and the eventual closure of the Road Home facility in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district.

Those involved in selecting the sites for the four new homeless shelters in the city have said the process was arduous and complicated and done with the knowledge their decisions will not be greeted with unanimous favor.

The Legislature, however, has appropriated healthy sums of state money to help city and county leaders build a wide safety net befitting a community that cares about its citizens in need. City leaders deserve credit for taking important steps in that process and recognizing their work has only begun.

There will undoubtedly be pushback over the recently announced locations of the new shelters scattered throughout the city. And some have already expressed concerns that there will be less than half as much capacity once the existing Road Home shelter is closed. What's more, city and county leaders will almost certainly be under pressure to make good on their promise to sharply reduce the homeless population by more effectively working to put people in permanent housing. The goal, of course, is not simply to reduce that population in the next two years, but also to keep it reduced to a manageable number in perpetuity.

These are major challenges, and they will be formidable.

Yet what the city and its partners are pursuing is a bold and important initiative that we hope can ultimately accomplish what has been an elusive goal for communities across America — significantly reducing homelessness.

There is currently high demand for services, with the main downtown facilities overflowing in recent weeks, even as large numbers of people remain on the streets, either not seeking shelter or not finding it.

The solution local leaders have promised is a “holistic” approach that will include stepped-up counseling services, a boost in the stock of affordable housing and an emphasis on treatment programs for those suffering from mental illness or addiction. In reality, only such an approach can reasonably be expected to make a meaningful dent. Similar efforts that focus on the specific needs of homeless individuals, for example, have proved effective with military veterans, who once made up a sizable segment of the homeless population but no longer do.

As for the new shelters, the idea of dispersing services over a broader geographic area is smart. It will allow providers to customize programs for specific classes of homeless people. Women with children will be served by one shelter, while single men will be directed to another. The city has yet to decide which of the new shelters will service which segments of the population, yet diffusing services throughout the city, rather than concentrating them, is a worthwhile aim.

Consequently, a significant benefit of the plan will be the alleviation of pressure on the Rio Grande district, where the bulk of homeless service providers have traditionally been clustered. It has caused the area to become a magnet for criminal activity, not necessarily related to the homeless population, but often camouflaged within it. Drug dealers prowl the streets, and there have been widespread problems associated with vagrancy and panhandling.

Rio Grande residents and business owners have expressed relief over the pending closure of the Road Home, while city leaders have been acutely aware that people in the neighborhoods where the new shelters will be opened may not be so thrilled by the decision. Unfortunately, the city felt it necessary to go about the process of selecting the sites without the sort of public notice and input that would commonly accompany such a major municipal initiative.

The causes of homelessness are things that can befall people in any strata of society. What city leaders are hoping — and we echo their optimism — is that the entire community will embrace humane solutions that reflect Utah's desire to effectively care for those in need.