A key element of the plan to address homelessness in Salt Lake County is the anticipated investment in more and better programs to move people off the streets and into stable environments. Without efforts to sharply reduce the number of people who rely on shelter services, there is a strong chance there will be a critical shortage of space even after a large public and private investment in building new satellite shelters in dispersed areas. The good news is there are examples of programs that have met with success in helping people caught in a web of drug addiction and other problems that often lead to homelessness.
One such program, profiled recently in the Deseret News, has helped dozens of people in the most desperate circumstances get their lives on track with what is referred to as “character-based” rehabilitation. The Other Side Academy is a self-funded, nonprofit organization that takes applicants it calls “students” and works with them over a two-year period, or longer, to overcome the problems that had kept them mired in a revolving-door world of jail time and ineffective, short-term treatment programs. The academy was launched a year ago and is now serving 54 patrons who have made a commitment to turn their lives around.
The program emphasizes instruction in vocational and life skills to help students get to the “other side.” The key determinant of who gets into the program is the attitude of the applicant, who must demonstrate he or she is “willing to put in the work to change their destructive behaviors,” according to the group’s website. The program is modeled after the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, which has been helping hardened criminals and drug addicts change their lives and become productive citizens for more than 50 years.
For Salt Lake City and County officials engaged in reforming homeless-services programs, the lessons of the Other Side Academy should be enlightening on several levels. First, it shows that even the most desperate people caught in long-term personal distress can be helped. Second, it proves that sort of help takes time. Programs most often available now offer short-term assistance with varying degrees of follow-up. For instance, people swept into police custody for drug use are often placed into 90-day diagnostic programs that offer help, but are often not effective in preventing recidivism. Many of them go back and forth between such programs and life on the streets, and they represent the part of the homeless population seen as posing a public-safety problem.
City and county leaders have outlined a plan, still under debate and subject to considerable controversy, that anticipates lowering the population in need of shelter services by as much as one-half. For a large part of the homeless population, an emphasis on counseling services and an increase in the stock of affordable housing will go a long way in reaching that objective. Reducing the number of people chronically bent on a life of drug use and crime is a much more difficult goal, but one that the remarkable work of the Other Side Academy has shown is indeed possible.