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Op-ed: It is not insignificant that we refer to people as homeless rather than houseless

Homeless individuals camp on 500 West in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City on Friday, July 28, 2017.
Homeless individuals camp on 500 West in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City on Friday, July 28, 2017.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Valley Behavioral Health agrees with the Deseret News Editorial Board that there are many problems with the way homeless services are delivered. Housing programs have shown that they decrease the number of Americans living on the streets, as well as the associated costs of emergency rooms, hospitals and jails. However, they often do not decrease mental illness or substance abuse. Utah can do better.

We help people return home to society. That is the mission statement of homeless services at Valley Behavioral Health. We do not subscribe to laissez faire approaches that undermine personal accountability, which is the bedrock of recovery from mental illness and substance abuse. We are inspired by helping others to recover the quality of their lives. We are not inspired by programs that enable them to continue unhealthy and destructive practices.

What kind of people do we help? We specialize in treating the minority of homeless with mental illness and substance abuse problems. We see a wide gap between the public perception of homelessness and the realities of homelessness. Polling research from Gallup and Fannie Mae reveal that as many as 85 percent of Americans believe substance abuse and mental illness are major causes of homelessness. However, multiple government organizations, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Institute of Mental Health, report that only about 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless are mentally ill and/or abuse drugs.

We support public efforts to decrease the number of homeless who do not have these challenges. That group often contains drug dealers and other criminals who prey on the people we’re trying to help. Multiple studies have shown that the mentally ill are several times more likely than the average person to be the victim of crime. Society has an obligation to protect these very vulnerable members. We protect them by redirecting the mentally healthy and sober to other programs that meet their needs.

What does it mean to return home? Home is much more than housing. Home is a place of refuge and protection from the world. Housing is four walls, a shower and a flushing toilet. Home is where people are taught to behave in ways that preserve unity of purpose. Housing maintains safety and regulatory standards that preserve physical safety. Home is where people unite to protect their members against destructive influences. Housing protects those who continue to use drugs, often at the expense of the surrounding neighbors who want help to be sober.

It is not insignificant that we refer to people as homeless rather than houseless. The homeless were raised in homes, not housing. In those homes, they celebrated birthdays, holidays and the ups and downs of life with people who loved them. Society also invested in them through public education and D.A.R.E. programs; now they are sleeping on our park benches and in our shelters. We help people remove their obstacles of mental illness and substance abuse so they can return home. Housing is often a very necessary first step to recovery, but ultimately, returning home is a much more satisfying goal for both them and us.

Homes do not exist in isolation. They are basic building blocks of society. Society offers many benefits for the individual in exchange for behavior that benefits all. Returning home to society means learning to live by the rules that promote health and well-being. In our homeless facilities, we model good societal behavior so our people can learn a better way to live.

We invite rigorous, yet polite and informed, public review of this vexing challenge. Let’s deal with this together.

Dr. Todd Thatcher provides supervision and oversight of Valley Behavioral Health’s medical operations of 55 medical staff members in nearly 50 clinics and facilities in four counties.