Most people do not know that the fastest-growing segment of the homeless is families and single parents with children. Or that many work but do not have a place to live. Or that medical emergencies are the biggest reasons people become homeless.
Homelessness is increasing at approximately 25 percent each year. The problem is getting worse and so is the funding. According to a recent report by the Utah Office of Education, there were 4,635 homeless children in Utah in 1990. This translates to approximately 11,000 homeless individuals in Utah last year.Budgeted funds for the homeless have increased, but there is even less to go around due to the even larger increase in the state's obligation to federally mandated Medicaid. The Utah Medical Assistance Program (UMAP) will serve 700 fewer people in 1991 than 1990. Emergency Work Program (EWP) is possibly going to cut single adults from its programs. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is facing a cut which serves 16,000 single families. The Housing Trust Fund is suffering from underfunding.
Many residents of the shelters use these programs to become self-sufficient. Many more are dependent on these programs to keep from becoming homeless.
There are 9,700 persons on waiting lists for subsidized housing in urban Utah alone (Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties), according to the Department of Community and Economic Development. Many waiting lists are closed, and those who are to be assisted generally have a wait of at least two years.
The problem is that homeless people are thought to be bums who don't want to work. Because of this stereotype, state and local governments are reluctant to commit the necessary funds to solve the problem. Instead, they simply provide bandages.
There are choices. Some of these include:
1. Do nothing. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.
2. Provide affordable housing units for families and singles who are homeless.
3. Fund more programs; expensive but helpful.
4. Appeal to the people to volunteer to take up the slack caused by lack of funding.
5. Appeal to people and organizations to sponsor homeless people with training, employment, housing.
6. Give special recognition to businesses that train and hire homeless people.
7. Establish one phone number and clearinghouse for people to call if they want to volunteer.
8. Support programs that assist people to avoid being evicted from their housing.
Community involvement would take the pressure off the state to create funds where there are none.
There would be one goal - assist people who would like to work and get off the streets and out of the shelters. Shelters are expensive to operate. Less people in shelters would mean more money for other projects.
In December, I received a letter from a homeless man. He was articulate and in great need. Here is an excerpt:
"So many of us have made our lives what they are and we all pay the price. Some are content with "street" life. Panhandling from day to day, city to city, living off the service organizations that are, thankfully, available. There are however, many of us that are not content with that lifestyle and want to change it, desperately. The hurdles that must be overcome, however, are many and very discouraging, even for those with determination.
"I would hope the community of Salt Lake City could come to an understanding that the homeless, in general, do not want to be that way. I pray each night that my circumstances will change. That somehow, someone will realize that I am still a viable person, capable of giving an employer more than they ask for. I pray that my health keeps holding so that I can keep trying to be a better me, for myself and for those that I could possibly help in some way." Signed, Bill Donovan.
This man defies the typical definition of homeless. He wants work and is reaching out for someone to come to his aid.
About a month ago, a friend of mine who is homeless came to visit me at work. I showed her the letter and asked what I should do. She read it, and said, "Why haven't you done anything?"
My answer was a difficult one. "I was afraid of getting involved. I didn't know him. What if he wanted more than I could give?" I realized that as much as I have given lip service to helping the homeless, when it came down to it, I found myself on the other side of the chasm between the homeless and the rest of "us."
My friend and I got in my car right then and set out to find the man. The address was foreign to me but we finally found it. The current resident said Bill had been gone about two weeks. We went to the shelter and talked to Kathy Farmer, transitional housing coordinator. Kathy knew Bill but said she had lost track of him as well.
The next few days were very emotional ones for me. I realized how much I had let Bill down. I resolved to get involved. My commitment is to help in whatever way I can with the realization that there will be some successes and some failures.
It is time for the state, counties and cities to make a concerted effort by launching a statewide campaign to maximize our resources, namely our citizenry. Call 1 (800) 346-3133 if you would like to volunteer. They need our help, now.