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Bedlam on the streets of Salt Lake City

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People camp in the park strip along 700 South near State Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“Bedlam” is a word with a modern meaning very different from its origin as a hospital in London that dates back to the 1200s. The hospital began with good intent to care for the mentally ill, but deteriorating conditions coupled with patient neglect, and the institution became synonymous with madness, chaos and confusion.

As if conditions of the mentally ill in Bedlam hospital wasn’t bad enough, wealthy Londoners were allowed to pay a fee to roam the halls and see patients in their destitute and despicable conditions for “entertainment” as if they were viewing animals in a zoo.  It is difficult to imagine such inhumanity.

If you’ve visited downtown lately, you will see how deterioration and neglect has led to bedlam on the streets of Salt Lake City. If you haven’t been in the central business district recently, you will be shocked and saddened by the scenes that await you. Inhumane conditions exist for hundreds on the streets of Salt Lake City. Difficult to imagine. Difficult to believe. Sad but true. And shameful.  

The solutions are also difficult, no doubt. But doing nothing is simply apathy cloaked as compassion, disguised as “live and let live.” Finding solutions requires leadership, and it requires everyone to pitch in. This is a communitywide problem that requires a communitywide solution.  

The businesses community must step up and do its part. Faith-based organizations and community leaders must be included in process. The state has a critical role to play in providing funding for homeless resources and medical care.  

Most important, the city needs to demonstrate political will and exercise its convening power to bring partners to the table, to start the discussion, formulate a plan and get to work. Nothing will happen until we admit we have a problem and start talking about potential solutions.

The discussion needs to start with the recognition that we must not treat those living (and dying) on the streets as a monolithic “homeless” group. The pandemic and the economic crisis have forced many previously on the edge of homelessness over that thin line. More affordable housing is an obvious part of the long-term solution for this group. So is expanded health care coverage. We should all agree that anyone living on the streets who would like to have place to stay in a safe and healthy resource center should have that option.

We should also agree that those who refuse help and prefer to camp in front of small business already struggling because of the pandemic or on a park strip outside a family’s residence should not have that option.  

Most importantly, we should agree that those suffering because of drug use or mental illness need medical treatment, and the predators who victimize the vulnerable through the drug trade and human trafficking should face strong legal consequences.

Some argue against law enforcement to stop the illegal drug trade and human trafficking. Some argue against intervention and treatment. Let people live how they want to live, goes the argument, except this is not “living” by any humane definition. It is bedlam. History will judge us harshly if we sit idly by, observing the inhumanity and allowing bedlam to continue.

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.