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In our opinion: Local leaders' take on homeless problem necessary first step

FILE — Laura Day, left, waits in line for a bed in the women's shelter at The Road Home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 28, 2016.
FILE — Laura Day, left, waits in line for a bed in the women's shelter at The Road Home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 28, 2016.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Salt Lake County leaders deserve credit for taking the Wasatch Front’s homeless problem seriously and for designing the outlines of a program that would use public and private investments to solve it. The meaty details are yet to be worked out, including decisions by Salt Lake City on where to locate two new shelters, but the plan already includes one important and necessary element — it would track outcomes and be driven by data.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy to implement. The area surrounding the city’s current shelter on Rio Grande Street has deteriorated into such a magnet of criminal activity and dangerous behavior that it complicates any decisions about where to build new shelters. We anticipate neighbors and business owners near any proposed site would be concerned about attracting similar problems.

County Mayor Ben McAdams assures us the new shelter system the county plan envisions would not replicate the issues facing the Rio Grande environ. He points to Ogden’s Lantern House as an example of a quiet shelter that integrates nicely into neighborhood surroundings. But city and county officials will have to make that argument convincingly in a downtown area all too familiar with the current challenges surrounding the homeless population.

They also will have to make a convincing argument that the new plan is sufficient. Experts on homelessness believe that, to be most effective, shelters should house no more than 250 to 300 people, but the area’s population, and by extension its problems, continues to grow.

The county’s plan calls for construction of two new shelters serving different populations, each capped at 250 beds, and for continuing the Road Home Family Shelter in Midvale, which has 300 beds. The current shelter on Rio Grande would be phased out.

The most radical part of the plan calls for providing vouchers to pay for rental housing, scattered across the Wasatch Front, for people who regularly inhabit shelters — people with criminal histories who are persistently jumping between shelters and jail. This housing, backed by private investors banking on the program’s success, would be coupled with intensive case management to help residents meet goals and data collection that, if successful, would help to reduce the demand on the shelter system.

This program sounds similar to the Housing First plan that some claim has successfully helped the chronically homeless establish more productive lives.

If this program fails, the investors lose their money and government leaders would be left to construct a different plan, informed by the data gained from their failures but damaged, one presumes, by missing the mark.

In other words, this structure gives government officials a huge incentive to succeed. That is refreshing. Too many government programs for the homeless involve public investments without much accountability.

It’s worth noting that Salt Lake County’s plan stands in stark contrast to the way many metropolitan areas attempt to deal with the homeless. News stories abound of efforts to outlaw sleeping in parks or, as a recent ordinance in Amarillo, Texas, attempted, to reduce the feeding of people down on their luck.

Local leaders here place a priority on human needs and recognize that the homeless are not far removed from the rest of the population. That is a necessary first step. Now it’s up to the public, together with city and county leaders, to cooperate and devise details that make this effort a success.