Addressing homelessness and its challenges in Utah

We hear about the good things happening in Utah, but that does not mean the state is perfect or without challenges. One of the biggest challenges we are facing is the homelessness issue.

Homelessness is not just a Salt Lake City problem. It impacts all of us because it impacts our economic prosperity and the image we portray to the nation and the world.

When we first launched the “Utah Prosperity Project” we noted that we would highlight what the state is doing well, but also discuss areas we need to work on. Homelessness is at the top of that list.

Homelessness Takes Center Stage

Homelessness has taken center stage because of the media coverage of the lawlessness in the Rio Grande neighborhood. This is a complex issue, so I decided to speak with expert Pamela Atkinson to clear up some misconceptions. Pamela is an advisor to Gov. Gary R. Herbert and a long-time advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

Pamela told me Operation Rio Grande is making Salt Lake City safer for everyone, including the homeless. But safety is only one of many concerns. Homelessness is a challenge that affects approximately 11,000 men, women and children across the state. She said about 70 percent of Utah’s homeless population is concentrated in the Salt Lake City area.

I asked her what drives people to homelessness? Typically, she said, there is a multiplicity of problems, including lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and alcoholism. Some of the problems can date back to a person’s childhood, where individuals have experienced mental, physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Some of Utah’s homeless population suffer from various forms of mental illness, but it would be a myth to think all our homeless friends are mentally ill, she said. What’s more, mental illness is not always obvious. Of those that are mentally ill, some qualify for case management while others do not. “We need to look at them one by one, as individuals. So many of them have little self-esteem,” she continued. “We need to build them up, care for them and treat them with dignity and respect.”

Pamela noted that substance abuse has increased dramatically within the homeless community during the past decade. “Quite a few of our homeless individuals are on Supplemental Security Income and they are spending it all on drugs,” she explained. “We get them in apartments and they stop paying rent so they can use the money on drugs or alcohol.”

It’s also a myth to think that getting a job will keep a person from becoming homeless. We may see an able-bodied man on the street and think, “Get a job.” But even working two or three low-paying jobs is not conducive to preventing homelessness, Pamela explained. Rather than being stuck in one or more low-paying jobs, homeless people need extra training so they can qualify for better-paying jobs that can sustain a family.

“We also have to assess their physical limitations and what they can do,” she added.
Continuing, she said it is difficult for people earning the minimum wage to make ends meet, and often they must choose between putting food on the table or a roof over their heads. Once they fall into homelessness, it is difficult to break out. Utah’s tight housing market doesn’t help either. In fact, the tight market has made it even more difficult to get homeless families out of the shelters and back into homes.

Ever since the economic crash in 2008, more and more families have become homeless. Pamela told me she has found that the longer a family stays in a shelter, the longer the trauma of homelessness will last. “The quicker we can get a family out of a shelter and into a home or apartment the better,” she added.

But just getting homeless people off the street is not enough, so concerned government, civic and private partners are working to find solutions to the root causes of homelessness. “We have to address the challenge with different types of treatment packages,” she added. “Over the past five years, literally thousands of homeless people have been helped to the point they have stable jobs, housing and they are contributing members of society. We need to work together to prevent homelessness and help those that are homeless get out of the system quickly.”

What Can We Do As Community Members?

I asked her what we can do to help? She said business, education and government partners should look for opportunities to provide the homeless with extra training, so they can qualify for better jobs. The homeless need an extra amount of care, she added. Further, something as simple as donating to a food pantry or food bank may save a family from becoming homeless. “They won’t be forced to spend rent money on food,” she concluded.

Most of all, Pamela told me as a society we just need to care. The more we care, the more we give, the more we can help. The proverb that it takes a village to raise a child applies equally well to solving homelessness.