Salt Lake magazine
Homeless man curled up under a plastic tarpaulin, asleep on the street.

If you want to fix homelessness 
why not talk to someone who lives it?

February 15, 2017

Experts aren’t hard to come by in local government. Groups of leading citizens, philanthropists and bureaucrats supplemented by paid consultants are working with the city and county mayors’ offices to create a so-called “new model” for dealing with Salt Lake’s homeless crisis. The result is a politics-driven mess that has enraged residents to the point they are organizing grassroots opposition.

The city’s homeless residents themselves, of course, haven’t had much input into designing the program that is supposed to help them climb out of their poverty and despair. I’m not asking for an empty gesture towards “inclusion” —the truth is that in reporting on the shelter-siting fiasco, I have met homeless people who offer creative insight into the issue.

The reason the homeless have little input is tied up in the reasons they’re on the streets. They are chronically depressed, broke and many are addicts or mentally unstable. They also can smell bad. So society avoids even eye contact and disenfranchises them. The truth is that many homeless are as clever as Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s entourage, and more creative.

I met an authority on Salt Lake’s homeless who offered unique insight into the city’s crisis because he is successfully working his way out of it. But it’s unlikely that he’ll be asked to join any blue-ribbon commissions because he’s a felon. Though he served his time and has been rehabilitated, the prejudice against former felons will forever deny him trust and credibility.

But if you think about it, his resume makes Bob (not his real name) an expert. If corporations hire convicted hackers as security consultants, why not enlist a homeless ex-con with a degree in psychology and real-world experience with mentally ill and addictive behavior for solutions to homelessness? In short, Bob has a PhD,  in the driving forces of street life.

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Photo by: Glen Warchol

“I used to think, ‘This happens to other people’—then it happened to me,” Bob says of his descent into hard times. He arrived in Salt Lake City a few years ago, after being released from prison. He first found a bed at the crowded Road Home shelter in the Rio Grande district. “I saw right away that wasn’t going to work,” he says. “I bought a tent and got on the Trax Red Line and rode it to the last stop. Along the way, I saw a nice ravine and I said to myself, ‘That’s the place.’ ”

Bob lived in the tent for more than a month, commuting downtown for jobs and services like thousands of other suburbanites. He ultimately found a room in transitional housing.

A thoughtful, compassionate and articulate man, Bob is an activist for prisoner rights and he’s an advocate for a better solution for the homeless. He, unlike Mayor Biskupski, doesn’t have “tremendous faith” that the new model of integrated homeless services will solve the crisis, as she told angry residents at a series of public meetings.

The stubbornness of drug addiction and mental illness issues will overwhelm the new model, Bob says. He, like some treatment professionals, is puzzled that the intractability of addiction and mental illness hasn’t been addressed in the roll-out.

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Artist Rendering of 275 W High Avenue (Please note that the renderings above are examples only, and are used to illustrate potential size and shape in reference to the surrounding area.)

That hidden math frightens residents near the resource center sites: The new model is supposed to somehow reduce the Road Home’s population of 1,000- 1,400 to 600 who will be divided equally between four dispersed new shelters.  

In 30 to 60 days, these homeless will be “stabilized,” then given a home in so-far non-existent low-income housing, with as-yet-defined ongoing services—paid for by still-uncertain state funding.

Bob offers a more common-sense assessment: The resource centers will fail. “You’ve got somebody who is down and out and in 60 days you’re going to turn them into a wide-eyed optimist? The neighborhoods [who oppose the centers] are going to get exactly what they fear.”

What they fear is getting a mini-Rio Grande district.

Bob’s skepticism puts him in good company. A respected homeless consultant, Robert Marbut Jr., told reporters in January that the city’s shelters are poorly planned and will be counter-productive. “You have a plan that’s driven by politics rather than logic and data.”  What seems to be missing are programs to give the homeless something to look forward to in their lives, Bob says, including education, technical training and art. “You have to give them something to replace their demons. You’ll get nowhere unless you do.”

Many addicts and the mentally ill may never respond, he says. “So we should treat them compassionately. We get them help and a safe,
clean place.”

Somehow, despite the bleak outlook he describes, Bob is optimistic. “Our homeless population is not out of hand yet—not like San Francisco and L.A., where it’s a city of its own. If we think creatively, we can do this.”

Darker Angels Descend on Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City District 4 Council Member Derek Kitchen accepted not one, but two homeless resource centers in his district because, he says, “It’s a reality of the world—homeless people are out there.”

Kitchen and his business partner and husband Moudi Sbeity are already heroes for their part in the lawsuit that brought Utah same-sex marriage. So it was shocking when Kitchen received hateful emails, including one that called him a “faggot” and threatened him. The man who sent the email explained to a TV reporter that his vow to hire someone to “f— up” Kitchen meant hiring a lawyer.

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Photo by: Andrea Kile Peterson

The incident illustrates how ugly the controversy has become. Yet everyone, other than drug dealers, agrees something has to be done about the crisis in the Rio Grande area, where crime threatens the homeless, not to mention developers’ plans.

Nevertheless, public meetings erupted in rage that shelters would be built in residental neighborhoods. The mayor and city council chose the sites in secrecy, arguing that public involvement would pit “neighborhood against neighborhood.”

It’s obvious to everyone, even Biskupski, who will suffer come reelection along with the council, that their arrogance created a fiasco.

Sugar House activist Chris Sveiven sums up, “The whole thing reeks of incompetence.”

— written by: Glen Warchol

Andrea Peterson

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