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John Florez: Homeless belie our moral sense

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FILE — People walk along 500 West near the Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

FILE — People walk along 500 West near the Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

What does it say about us as a people when we allow our elected leaders to spend $15 million of our taxes to build a theater, without our vote, while we allow our most vulnerable people to live in squalor and fear on our Rio Grande streets in downtown Salt Lake City?

Unlike the unilateral quick decision to fund the theater in 2011, former Mayor Ralph Becker appeared slow in recognizing the problems of the homeless until there was public outcry in 2014 about the health, safety and economic loss in the Rio Grande area. It was then that he was pressured to do something. His solution was to appoint a 30-member commission to study the problem and make recommendations as to where the siting of homeless services in Salt Lake City should be.

The Rio Grande area has become a cesspool that challenges and belies our moral values.

It has become a public health and safety problem marked by violence, discarded drug needles, intoxicated individuals and the stench of human waste permeating the area.

Some are homeless for economic reasons, joblessness, health. Others suffer from chronic mental illness and substance abuse and addiction. Sleeping on the street makes them vulnerable to predators who may harm them or they may harm themselves.

Now two years later, the commission made its recommendation that was like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic — split the homeless from the Rio Grande area by gender and build two 250-bed facilities in our communities, with the sites yet to be determined. Wait — weren’t they charged to select sites?

If the problem men and women have is lack of money, jobs or domestic violence, it would be more humane and cost effective to provide rental vouchers so they could live independently and part of the community. The city could negotiate with the apartment developers that have vacancies and who got tax breaks and incentives by the former city administration for developing transit station site housing.

But what about those who suffer from chronic mental illness and those suffering from substance abuse addiction. It has been estimated that mental illness and substance abuse are the most cited factors for homelessness in Utah and up to 60 percent nationally. How prudent is it to have that population living in a 250-bed facility in our family neighborhoods? How safe is it for those with mental illness to live in our neighborhoods? The commission never answered those questions.

Treating those with chronic mental illness requires assisting them to recover and re-learn social and coping skills through daily living. What is needed is the establishment of therapeutic communities that provide those with mental illness a safe group living environment where they can recover the skills needed to lead a life consistent with their potential. Such communities should be located in a safe area, away from urban stimulation, and away from predators.

To allow the vulnerable to live in such squalor belies our moral sense, but to build a $15 million theater instead of helping them should question who we are and care for as a people.

Utahn John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His Bush 41 White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. jdflorez@comcast.net