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Jay Evensen: Don't close the old homeless shelter next year

A man walks by the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
A man walks by the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If you live in Salt Lake City, you probably don't think homelessness is being solved.

A new poll commissioned by found that 45 percent say homelessness and panhandling are about the same today as when a coalition of state, county and city leaders began a concerted crackdown a little more than a year ago.

Another 24 percent said the problem has gotten worse. That's a combined 69 percent of polled city residents who say, regardless of what official crime figures might indicate, the plan isn't working.

The homeless were supposed to have been separated from the criminals who prey on them, and given help. The criminals were supposed to be removed and prosecuted. And yet both the appearance of homelessness (not all who look down on their luck actually are homeless) and panhandling remain problems.

Well, hang on just a second. As an observer of Utah politics for the past 32 years, I can tell you the multiagency effort that began in the summer of 2017 deserves respect. The situation around the shelter on Rio Grande Street had become intolerable after a summer of lawlessness and murder, and now it's better.

The overall aim of the effort — to help the homeless heal and fix their lives — was the right approach.

But everyone involved needs to understand two things.

The first is that homelessness cannot be solved for good, the way you fix a leaky roof or build a better water system to accommodate growth. As long as people suffer debilitating problems, lose jobs or wrestle with substance abuse and mental illnesses, a certain percentage of people will be unable to manage housing on their own. As the population increases, these numbers will increase, too.

The second is that the current effort comes with no guarantees. It represents ideas politicians and others devised. Some others, myself included, had different ideas. This isn't high school math. You can't check your work with the indisputably correct answer in the back of the book.

But it's also not an essay question to be judged by a professor. We will know, shortly after the plan is fully implemented, whether it really works.

All of which means the politicians involved should remain nimble and ready to adapt. That may not be easy considering the political negotiating that went into the current plan, and the amount of money already spent.

The state of Utah recently agreed to buy the old Road Home shelter on Rio Grande for $4 million. Given the uncertainties, and the overwhelming perception of city residents that, at the very least, nothing has improved, it seems wise to wait before doing anything different with that building for a while.

Three new homeless shelters, officially called "resource centers," are under construction in separate locations. Add up all the new beds — 300 at the men's shelter and 200 each at the women's and mixed-gender facilities — and it falls several hundred short of what the current shelter holds.

One more problem complicates it all. When you put separate homeless populations in separate locations, you hit a math problem that does indeed have an answer in the back of the book. On a cold night, you may have hundreds more single men in need of a warm place to stay than what the men's shelter can hold, while space remains at the other two shelters.

This is the main reason I advocated for a single, large shelter where populations could remain separate, but where walls could be moved to accommodate specific needs.

Officials I've talked to about this say they will give motel vouchers to people who don't fit in the shelters on a given night. Does that sound like a great plan?

A better idea would be to keep the Road Home Shelter available as a backup, at least for now. State law requires the Road Home close next June 30. That can be changed, at least until we know whether the aggressive plan to transition people out of homelessness works.

The hope, of course, is that closing the Rio Grande shelter would move the panhandlers and drifters away from tourists and the daily work crowd. That's naive for three reasons.

First, panhandlers will go where the people are. Second, it's wrong to equate panhandlers with the homeless. Third, some homeless people, for whatever reason, would rather sleep anywhere than in a resource center.

That means politicians and professionals should be committed to constantly adapting, finding the best ways to deal with the needs of the least fortunate among us.

It also means that, while public opinion is important, it may not be the best measure of success.