Mayor Biskupski, Mayor McAdams and Governor Herbert are between a rock and a hard place—not as hard a place as the hundreds of homeless are in, but it's still a pretty hard rock.
For the city and county mayors, the problem is the ugly visual reminder on our streets that many citizens cannot afford a place to live. For the governor, add the reality that the impending death of coal south of here could soon turn much of Carbon County into Appalachia West with even more potential joblessness and homelessness. In Duchesne and Uintah counties, employment and business is depressed because energy from the ground is no longer fueling growth.
Simply building more shelters without solving the real problem prolongs homelessness that will continue to outstrip the capacity to add bunks.
Officialdom cites statistics showing that Utah homelessness has been reduced by 91 percent in recent years. They say the problem has been statistically solved. But, in May of this year, Deseret News ran a story headlined "Utah's big drop in homelessness is 'fiction,' economist says." Those who data-dive into those official stats, like folks at The Washington Post, Huffington Post and The Guardian, find that the main reason for the 91-percent reduction is that Utah is no longer counting everyone like it used to.
The takeaway is that beds from new shelters will be filled by an ever-growing homeless population and Road Home overcrowding will continue. Addressing the symptom does not solve the problem. Without more affordable places to live, where else do you think people will go besides shelters?
Here's a solution to reducing homelessness in a two-word phrase: "living wage." A living wage is defined as sufficient earned weekly pay to be able to buy food, take care of medical needs, pay rent and utilities and still have enough money to afford transportation to get to the job that keeps the process going.
We live within an area where a lot of our fellow citizens, many with families, just cannot earn a living wage no matter how many jobs they juggle. The governor, Legislature and others, constantly tout that we are No. 1 for business in Utah. Yet, there are not enough living-wage jobs for those on the bottom who will end up in our shelters. Many (not most, but enough to be a problem) become despondent, feel hopeless and turn to drugs and crime, requiring us to budget more for police, courts and jails. Enable a living wage for the lowest 3 percent, and we reduce the need to spend millions of tax dollars on public safety, in addition to warehousing, feeding and medical care for homeless people—because they won't be homeless.
The path to eliminating Utah's homeless problem was revealed in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal that America's potential new manufacturing jobs cannot be created, because worker training is so bad that, in spite of all the unemployed homeless folks, we aren't producing enough trained workers to fill skilled manufacturing jobs. The Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers projects there will be 2 million unfilled American jobs within 10 years.
Let's look at how business is solving this problem overseas. In Germany, half of high school graduates no longer decide to go to college, but enter apprenticeship programs that are public-private partnerships between manufacturers and public vocational schools. After these schools, these students end up in great paying jobs and German manufacturing is rocking it.
Here in the U.S., German companies like Siemens and Volkswagen are working with state government funding (although not in Utah, it appears) to put less-educated people through training and apprenticeship programs to create enough of a skilled workforce to expand their production, grow U.S. manufacturing and reduce the need for local government to cover housing, medical and policing costs associated with the hopelessness and helplessness of being homeless.
There are really two things that we can do to create a living wage and eliminate homelessness in Utah. First, we can recognize that any gross income of less than $290 per week—that's 40 hours of work at our $7.25 per hour (Utah minimum wage)—sustains nobody. We need to support political candidates who agree to raise that minimum wage to a living wage. Secondly, we need to elect candidates who push not only shelters, but real housing that falls within the budgets of those families who are now out on the street.
America's "best state in the nation for business" should do both: provide vocational training and build more affordable houses. Nonprofit Salt Lake Habitat for Humanity just broke ground on a 20-home tract in Kearns, but it took three years of fundraising and dealing with planning commissions, zoning boards, etc. The nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Utah cites significantly greater affordable home building success, but, without legislative help, it takes too long and is only a drop in the bucket.
So, let's build more affordable housing and train our people into good jobs and out of poverty to eliminate our need to fund shelters, reduce food insecurity and perhaps even reduce the punishing overload at emergency rooms for treating cases of the uninsured that ERs were never intended to serve. Let's strengthen our workforce and make Utah appealing to manufacturing throughout the state so that even our friends and relatives in Carbon County will no longer fear losing those disappearing coal-mining jobs.
"Best for business" Utah is pretty crappy about its willingness to leave lots of folks behind. Help the Legislature improve Utah's business success for all. Return your by-mail ballot as soon as you get it.