Downtown and Central City have more than fair share of social services programs

As a downtown Salt Lake City resident, I have followed with interest the discussions regarding services for homeless people, along with panhandling problems and the abundance of crime around the Pioneer Park/200 South area.

I will let leaders far wiser than me determine the future of the Road Home homeless shelter and other services for folks needing help. Discussions are going forward about dispersing homeless services to other areas of the Wasatch Front.

My purpose in writing is simply to help citizens and community leaders better understand the totality of social services demands concentrated in the downtown/central city area, and the challenge it poses for all stakeholders in the area.

Our focus must be on serving people with difficult challenges in their lives, and I don’t believe that happens very well when these folks are so concentrated in a small area.

Until recently, I served in a volunteer leadership position in a downtown LDS Church congregation. My ward area was essentially the west side of downtown, including Pioneer Park, the Road Home shelter, along with many other social services facilities, and hundreds of units of low-income housing.

As a church community, we are assisted in our ministering to people with special needs by volunteer service missionaries who come from all over the Wasatch Front. To effectively deploy these terrific service missionaries, the LDS wards and stakes in the inner city area were asked to inventory various social services institutions and facilities, including low-income housing, within their ward and stake boundaries.

My stake is the Salt Lake Liberty Stake, which comprises the area south and west of Liberty Park, bordered on the west by the freeway and railroad tracks. It is a relatively compact area. My stake president asked each bishop to list the facilities where people with various challenges in their lives draw on church help. 

The compilation was rather eye-opening. The cumulative impact is enormous. While the homeless shelter obviously gets the most attention, it’s really a very small part of the totality of the facilities and institutions in my stake serving low-income citizens, people recently out of jail or prison, people with various disabilities and addictions, and so forth.

None of us mind living amidst these facilities. The institutions and services are obviously vitally important to thousands of our fellow citizens, including many church members. It is the concentration of these facilities, the cumulative impact, that is concerning. I believe our neighbors with difficult challenges in their lives would be better served if they were not so concentrated in the downtown/central city area.

In the meeting where we discussed these facilities, I didn’t hear one complaint from church leaders. To the contrary, the entire focus was on how we can better serve homeless, elderly and disabled folks, and those struggling with addictions, mental health challenges, and people who are recently out of prison. 

But the discussion led me to think about the many times I’ve observed communities outside of the central city area rise in strident opposition when even one of these kind of facilities is proposed for their neighborhoods.

The combined list just within my small stake amounted to more than 40 institutions and facilities. I won’t name them because I don’t want them to feel they are being singled out or are a burden. Individually, they are not a burden. But cumulatively, they are a great challenge, not just for the church, but for neighbors, businesses, and certainly for the social services provider community.

I by no means wish to imply that the church is the main provider of services for this community. Local church leaders are all part-time volunteers. I greatly appreciate the heroic efforts of the hundreds of full-time social workers and caseworkers who staff the many social services facilities and provide the bulk of the support.

Still, long lines of people seeking help meet with local bishops eachSundayand Tuesday evenings. And bishops receive many phone calls each day from people needing help, often dealing with emergency situations. Bishops in Central City stakes spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help people in need, including rent and housing, food, utilities, medical bills, transportation, etc.

The more than 40 facilities in my stake include homeless shelters serving more than 1,000 people, major housing institutions for people with serious mental health issues, two large housing facilities for the chronically homeless, several drug treatment and detoxification centers, women’s shelters, halfway houses, food banks, soup kitchens, medical facilities, several low-income senior housing facilities, dozens of low-income apartment complexes, and numerous run-down, pay-by-the-week motels.

That’s all in one compact part of downtown/central city. Our neighboring stakes also have high concentrations of these facilities.

Here’s the point: Even if the main homeless shelter was moved, even if homeless people did not congregate in the Pioneer Park area, downtown would still have far more than its share of social services facilities and challenges. 

I fully accept the fact that downtown will always have far more of these institutions than any suburban area. We will always have panhandlers and a lot of people with addictions and mental health challenges.  It has been a blessing to work with this population. But it would be nice to share the blessings a bit.

I’m obviously not speaking for the LDS Church. This is just the opinion of one guy living downtown.