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Opinion: Where are the leaders who will help Salt Lake City’s homeless?

In 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City grew 14% We need leaders who will help by adding resources, not taking them away

SHARE Opinion: Where are the leaders who will help Salt Lake City’s homeless?
A homeless man stands behind a shopping cart full of belongings on a cloudy day.

Andrew Blackburn, who is homeless, packs his belongings as Salt Lake City police enforce cleanup of homeless camps on 800 South in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Homelessness is growing in Salt Lake, and we need leaders who will help.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

We need to make strides on homelessness now.

I read last week that the number of people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time grew 14% in 2021. But what gobsmacked me was to learn that this “marks the first time that measure has increased in the past five years.” I couldn’t help but think: We’ve been poorly handling a problem that hasn’t been growing. Now I have to ask, what will we do with a growing problem? 

I’ve lived and owned a business in downtown Salt Lake City most of my adult life. Daily I walk these streets. Traditionally this was my thinking time, my wind down time at the end of the day. Now, I need to stay too vigilant to let my thoughts wander. Maybe it’s sidestepping drugs or unmentionables on the sidewalk, maybe it’s people passed out or if it’s late enough, it’s personal safety I need to be aware of. This is not the city of my past, and why I’m most frustrated is this doesn’t need to be our city now either.  

To be clear, I place the blame firmly on lack of leadership, not on those who need the bridge services we are clearly not capable of delivering at this moment. Now is the time to be thinking of the mayor we need to end this era of rampant homelessness and violence that has marked our capital city for the last handful of years.

We need a mayor who will change our approach to the shelter resistant, to a system that includes long-term engagement, assessment and is service-focused. Our shelters need to become resources centers — with actual resources available there. Let’s use programs that have been successful in other cities, establish a nine point of entry program for those experiencing homelessness and assign individual paths to get through.

It’s not about the money. It’s about the strategic and consistent application of resources directly into programs, not middle men. We have nationally acclaimed partners like The Other Side Academy that need government to facilitate and red tape to get out of their way.

No more talking over action and false declarations of successes. No more trying to teach nonexperts to do jobs they don’t have the skills for. We have access to experts; we have the means — let’s get the will. 

So why haven’t we done this already?

We’ve started so much, why can’t we get anything over the finish line lately? In a nutshell, I believe it’s mistrust. Jurisdictions pointing fingers, not lifting up solutions, or identifying ideas and responsibilities. Salt Lake City leaders are developing a bad habit of speaking nicely in the meeting and then doing something different (or worse — nothing) after the meeting. Let’s not be afraid to debate the best ideas, and challenge each other respectfully and face to face. Adapt quickly when something isn’t working — this isn’t failure, it’s refining. Come to the best ideas and then support each other. Moving to this business model will build trust and results.

This is hard work. Tough decisions need to be made; people will be mad. Success and excellence must be demanded, and results need to be seen. Another word for this is leadership. 

David Ibarra is a leadership consultant, entrepreneur, speaker and author with a background in the hospitality, automotive and talent development industries. He lives and works in downtown Salt Lake City.