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Shouting down a human social problem

FILE "” A homeless man walks past the Rio Grande Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, where manager Ian Henderson was assaulted by a homeless woman this past weekend.
FILE "” A homeless man walks past the Rio Grande Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, where manager Ian Henderson was assaulted by a homeless woman this past weekend.
Nick Wagner, Deseret News

I wonder what the reaction would be if someone suggested we line up all the homeless people in Salt Lake County — men, women, even children — regardless of why they’re homeless or how hard they’re working to reclaim better lives — and vaporize them.

Poof. Let’s make them disappear.

I hope the suggestion would be universally appalling because it’s a disgusting one. But recent discussions on where to place homeless resource centers leave me wondering if I’m being too optimistic.

The Wasatch Front has picked sites for three resource centers to serve people who are homeless, and it’s really no surprise the task has been contentious and emotional, with lots of not-in-my-neighborhood protests.

That’s partly human nature and it’s certainly not unique to homeless shelters. Most of us recognize the need for prisons (the new one’s going in on my side of the valley), shelters, group homes, halfway houses and residential treatment programs. We’d prefer they be located in someone else’s neighborhood.

In this case, there’s an added hex on the prospect: In the press to close the homeless shelter system in downtown Salt Lake, the focus has not been on the struggles that many people in the shelter face daily, often unobtrusively and with honor, or what services they might need to escape homelessness, but almost solely on the drug deals and crime in the area.

That leaves the mistaken impression that anyone who’s homeless is toxic. That’s the problem with making your point by demonizing a category of people. It makes them hard to place in other communities. If you announce that Uncle Curt has a deadly contagious disease and it’s your sister’s turn to host him, she’s apt to remember that she can’t — or simply refuse.

Yes, there are no doubt criminals among the homeless, just as there are criminals among the homed. Segments of the population do attract and include a predatory element, including drug dealers. So enforce the laws — but don’t assume everyone is breaking the law.

I don't know how to fix homelessness, but in 35 years reporting on and interacting with people who are homeless, I’ve learned a lot about how lives fall apart and how much more vulnerable most of us are than we admit, even to ourselves.

Among my homeless acquaintances, you'll find college grad Sharon, who became homeless after her roommate ripped her off. Victor lost his IT job about the same time his wife became ill and they ended up in shelter with three little girls. Lydia started drinking after her mom died, while Ginny's mom threw her out when she was just 12 years old. Ricky lost his job and his family was temporarily in shelter, too. Jim was a homeless war hero with inadequately treated PTSD, while Ann's life blew up when she got cancer. They're all real people I've chronicled in this newspaper. With each story, I was struck by how fragile we could each be if the circumstances were right. A food bank employee, Jim Pugh, once told me they care for "the homeless and the teetering."

I'm not teeter-proof. Are you?

Helping people who are homeless will never require a single recipe; you have to deal with the issues each has, hence the need for programs and case management. As Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said when he picked one center site and offered suggestions to mitigate potential harm there, this is not any one community's problem to handle or fund, including covering the cost of increased policing. It’s a challenge we must share, financially and in other ways.

We also need to share a commitment to tackling homelessness productively, instead of wishing it on someone else’s neighborhood.