"We are 90 percent of the way with the housing-first model toward eliminating homelessness for our chronically homeless in this city. It is an incredible national achievement that is recognized every day."—Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, at the Poverty Summit, Aug. 29, 2015
At several Salt Lake City mayoral debates (at which I was present, as a former mayoral candidate), Mayor Ralph Becker touted the fact that Salt Lake City had received national recognition for its efforts to stem chronic homelessness, reporting that homelessness had dropped more than 90 percent over the past decade under Utah's Housing First initiative.
Yet most who live, work or visit downtown would say certain parts have developed an increasingly bad reputation as a drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods, even causing some downtown visitors to be concerned for their personal safety.
Even many of the homeless are afraid of areas near the homeless shelters and have moved away. New homeless youth are targeted for victimization in the area. Those who do care about and immerse themselves in efforts to clean up the problem spots often recoil at the troubled conditions.
Those of us who opposed Mayor Becker challenged him on the homelessness and drug issues that go on near the Rio Grande. In July, during an overhaul of the law-enforcement efforts, Salt Lake City ramped up the police presence in the area. It appeared to have decreased the more obvious drug-dealing next to the Road Home homeless shelter. The city also put in extra fencing to separate the children's play area from the sidewalk drug dealing.
The city deserves credit for finally realizing, after seven years, this is an issue that deserves more attention. However, Becker refused to hire more police and add permanent walking patrols in the afflicted areas until the City Council ordered more police.
The Salt Lake City Police Department also announced, under the direction of the administration, that police would ticket and enforce quality-of-life ordinances, such as loitering and public intoxication. Ticketing the homeless, who then end up with dozens of tickets, only increases hopelessness and encourages homelessness.
The police stated that they recovered 160 shopping carts while providing users with a recently opened 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. storage facility. But is it working? The homeless may simply move, with their shopping carts, to other parts of the city.
At the Poverty Summit held Aug. 29 at St. Mark's Cathedral, Mayor Becker again boasted about the Housing First-model that he said has helped nearly to eliminate chronic homelessness in this city. But the Road Home executive director, Matt Minkevitch, told a different story in his opening remarks. Salt Lake City, he said, still needs nearly 8,000 housing units to really solve the issue.
Solutions to homelessness should include a multi-pronged approach that combines hiring more police and social workers, getting people the medical help they need and getting people off the streets. Here's how I would address the problem head-on:
The quickest way to restore the areas of concern to a safe, inviting and developable neighborhood is to provide more overtime funding for police. We need to permanently increase the number of police in walking patrols throughout the area and in other parts of the city as well, including along North Temple.
Development of more affordable dwelling units must be encouraged. Unfortunately, the only low-income apartments being built now are through the Utah Housing & Community Development tax-credits system. Tamera Kohler, with Housing & Community Development, and Claudia O'Grady, with Utah Housing Corporation, indicated they provide only between 700 and 1,000 low-income-housing units through their services each year.
Salt Lake City could convert several of its vacant buildings in affected areas to provide a safe environment for 24-hour storage individual sleeping facilities and supervised, inviting day centers that encourage the homeless to come in off of the sidewalks.
As the Road Home is filled beyond capacity, and minor infractions could result in a person being kicked out for 30 days or more, the city should open an expansion facility now. If the homeless stay outside, they develop relationships with their homeless "family," who only encourage staying homeless.
Healthy Utah or some form of Medicaid expansion is needed to fund treatment of the mentally ill and those struggling withdrug and alcohol addiction, conditions that are endemic in the homeless population downtown. Salt Lake City should encourage the Legislature to pass a Medicaid-expansion program to help address the issue.
We should not accept, nor ignore, people living on sidewalks. It is outrageous that people have to sleep on sidewalks. We don't need more studies, commissions or metrics, and we need to stop saying the homelessness situation is getting better.
And Mayor Becker should stop saying that we have chronic homelessness 90-percent solved.
George Chapman was a candidate in the Salt Lake City mayor's race in the August 2015 primary.