Genius Panel: Dealing with Homelessness and Panhandling

blue 01This week’s question: Homelessness and panhandling are on-going challenges, especially in downtown Salt Lake City. Recognizing that these challenges are not always related, how serious are these problems, are they growing, and can they ever be effectively resolved?

Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor, former director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and Democratic candidate for various offices. The citizen’s committee led by former Mayor Palmer DePauls and Gail Miller have put together the only real plan that will work. It diversifies the homeless population to separate and specially separated facilities. It segments them into the many backgrounds and problems they represent. It asks our neighborhoods to be accepting and supportive. It protects homeless families with children and other vulnerable people from the crime now rampant on 4th and 5th West. It encouraged the Legislature to provide basic resources.

It is understandable that the Salt Lake City Council is initially reacting to NIMBYism. They represent neighborhoods. However, the challenge to a council is one that could make them great in our city’s history. Work through the NIMBY issues, find meaningful locations and strongly support them. 

Theresa Foxley, attorney and deputy director, Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Homelessness and panhandling are both serious issues facing our community. Homelessness and its root causes, mental health issues and a lack of access to opportunity and support services, are all issues this community is prepared to tackle through political, community, ecclesiastical, and business leadership. I don’t know that we will ever “resolve” the issue, but we are better positioned than any other community in the world to make an impact and reverse the tide because of our willingness to collaborate. 

Panhandling is another issue entirely and is pernicious in its own way. Panhandling on our sidewalks is intimidating to tourists, office workers, urban dwellers and others. From my seat in economic development, I see panhandling as a separate but important issue to be tackled because it can drive away economic activity. I always encourage others to follow Pamela Atkinson’s advice and to give to organizations, rather than to individual panhandlers. We can all work towards removing the incentive to panhandle. 

Peter Corroon, former Salt Lake County mayor and current state Democratic chair. The new encampments around the Rio Grande and perceived lawlessness reminds me of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.  Mayor Guliani came in and cracked down on what he called the “broken window” effect.  He started enforcing small ordinances to prevent larger criminal behavior.  He stopped people from jay-walking and stopped people from demanding money from stopped cars after “cleaning” their windows with dirty water.  He also had police located on many of the street corners.   Eventually, people felt safer walking and driving in New York City.

In Salt Lake City, the panhandlers in the medians and on street corners are causing the lawless perception.  So are the encampments along the freeway on-ramps and behind the Rio Grande.  The larger problem is the drug dealers that are inserting themselves into the mix.  They are preying on the homeless, many of whom have substance abuse and mental health issues.  The additional police presence and enforcement have helped, and more may be necessary but the police cannot arrest everyone, nor is this the ultimate solution.

The City is creating new plans for additional shelters to disperse the large number of homeless in one place.  This should help.  Ultimately, the solution will require government, non-profits and the business community to work together.  

Val Oveson, former Utah lieutenant governor, state auditor, and National Taxpayer Advocate. A study of history would tell us that the issue has been with us since the beginning of time. Also, our treatment of the poor is a measure of our humanity and Christianity. So, it’s not new, and it will forever be with us.

How we deal with it is the only issue. I think the problem is growing simply as a result of the risks associated with the financial crisis that affects more and more of our citizens as a result of drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. More and more of our citizens are living on the edge and are at risk. The actions that seem to have the greatest effect are facilitating housing, counseling, and a job. Without all three it’s very hard to stabilize the situation.

As I interact with the homeless, I constantly remind myself that “but for the grace of God, there go I.” I’m very humbled by what I see and feel more compassionate as a result.  

Mark Bouchard, senior managing director, Southwest Region, CBRE, Inc. The challenge is severe and growing in our downtown area. As a company with clients who visit from other parts of the country, the challenge has become quite visible and cause for concern.

Our offices, located in the 200-300 block of Main Street, often have multiple people requesting money on our block throughout the day. The same circumstances exist when heading north towards City Creek, where people sit on the street requesting donations from everyone passing by.

It’s unfortunate, the place these people find themselves. They obviously have had things occur in their life that has led them to these desperate measures for survival.

However, we must also acknowledge that sitting on Main Street, at the core of our business environment, is not where solutions will be found.