By Palmer DePaulis and Gail Miller, The Salt Lake Tribune
Homelessness in our community is a complex, challenging, regional and moral issue. It requires a long-term holistic approach and commitment to address. While our community has made significant progress in recent years to reduce homelessness, there is still much work to do.
To that end, two complementary commissions — comprised of service providers, government agencies, community leaders and business representatives — are nearing completion of a wide-ranging process to analyze our community’s homelessness situation and suggest solutions to best address our needs. Both groups will submit recommendations to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams by year end.
Multi-layered situation • Just like the populace at large, our homeless population is not homogeneous. It is diverse and comprised of multiple groups of people — single men, youths, families, the elderly, those with mental health and substance abuse issues and so on. Each of these groups has specific needs that must be considered and addressed separately and thoughtfully.
While the face of homelessness has been changing for decades, the financial struggles of the Great Recession led to a spike in homelessness among all types of individuals and families — usually for short, but often repeated, periods of time — and that uptick has continued despite today’s more robust economy. In addition to financial problems, numerous root causes may lead to people suddenly finding themselves without a home, including domestic violence, other family conflicts, and mental health and substance abuse issues.
Multiple nonprofit and government programs have evolved over the years to meet the needs of diverse groups of homeless people. And despite the fact that we spend an estimated $100 million a year on direct and indirect services related to homelessness, we lack sufficient resources in major areas, particularly mental health and substance abuse treatment. Drug dealing and crime in the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area — partially, but not wholly, connected to homelessness — as well as development pressures and quality of life concerns, also complicate the situation.
Holistic approach • It’s clear that successfully addressing homelessness requires a methodical, multipronged effort involving many stakeholders over a sustained period of time. Thanks to the leadership of Mayors Becker and McAdams, that sort of collaborative approach is exactly what our community is doing. The processes to systematically review services for homeless people, and the locations and facilities where they are provided, grew out of long-term efforts by both mayors to involve, educate and listen to key stakeholders through the Salt Lake region.
Bringing those stakeholders and disparate interests to the table and helping to ensure that all parties understand and value everyone’s positions and expectations has been a daunting task. Mayors Becker and McAdams have worked unwaveringly behind the scenes with us to hold the effort together, and both assure us they are committed to implementing sustainable improvements going forward.
Progress through partnerships • Our work shows that the community would benefit from making a variety of changes to how we serve the homeless. Most importantly, it’s crucial to separate families with children from other homeless populations. Other likely recommendations include moving from having one or two large shelters to several, smaller shelters that each serve specific groups (men, youths, the disabled, etc.); locating facilities throughout the community; better coordinating services; continuing stepped-up police efforts; and, most importantly, increasing resources for housing, medical care, mental health and substance-abuse treatment. Putting in place the recommendations of this landmark process will be a heavy lift that will require continued strong leadership and perseverance.
If any community can rise to the challenge, it is ours. Salt Lake City has already proven itself to be a national leader in effectively eliminating persistent and ongoing homelessness among veterans and dramatically reducing it among the overall homeless population.
But as anyone who has driven recently through the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area knows, we have much work to do to improve life for our residents temporarily without homes, as well as those fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads and food on their tables. We’re grateful that our community partners and government leaders are willing to invest time and resources to tackle issues like homelessness and make life better for all of us. By working together, our city will keep growing greater, stronger, and more caring.
Palmer DePaulis has served as mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah Tax Commissioner and executive director of the state departments of Human Services and Community and Culture. A longtime community leader, philanthropist and humanitarian, Gail Miller is owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.