Shelters are an important part of services for the homeless, but the new shelter in Salt Lake City is inadequate and only partially addresses the problem of housing for the very poor.
Nick Geoghan, an advocate for the homeless and founder of People Helping People, criticized both the new and older facilities serving the city's homeless. During a panel discussion on housing issues Thursday at a daylong conference on home-lessness, he said, "Shelters are a Band-Aid idea. We're not saying it isn't clean, we're saying it's a warehouse. And it will be clean for six months, then it won't be different from the old shelter."Why, he asked, can't abandoned buildings be redone to allow the homeless some privacy and decent living space? "They spent $3.4 million on the (families' and single men's) shelter and it was a waste of money that could have been put into SROs (Single Resident Occupancies - sleeping rooms without amenities like kitchens). We aren't asking for a handout. We'd be willing to work out ways to help or pay what we could. I'm sure there are buildings that are just going to waste. Why couldn't some of the homeless be using houses until they are sold, renovated or whatever? Right now, the shelter's needed, but it's no solution to the problem."
Others agreed with Geoghan that shelters are not the long-term solution to homelessness, but argued they're an important step toward housing. Patrick Poulin, director of Traveler's Aid (the agency operating the old and new shelters), said, "The shelters are in poor condition. That's why this community has responded by building a new shelter. It will meet basic needs: a safe environment, a clean environment, a place to store things. But I will have a party the day the old shelter closes (around Nov. 20) and you're all invited."
Poulin said Traveler's Aid operates six transitional housing units, used for up to three months rent- and utility-free by families that seem ready to move out of the shelters. Those units, three duplexes scattered around the county, were donated by the Salt Lake County Housing Authority. Traveler's Aid hopes to raise money to operate at least six more transitional housing units.
Housing isn't the only issue involved in homelessness, panelists agreed. "We're having to deal with a new kind of poor - the poor who have suffered the effects of an economy that has gone down and there's no relief in sight," said Clorinda Cordova, member of the Carbon County Housing Authority. "Some have never been in a homeless, poor situation before."
Panelists said finding jobs, adequate numbers of housing units and ways to pay for basic costs (insurance, utilities, maintenance and taxes), medical programs and other services are all intertwined with housing. To deal with those issues, consumer groups, private individuals, government officials and corporations need to communicate with each other and explore new ways of funding necessary programs.
Rep. Kim Burningham, R-Davis, chairman of the Community and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said increases in government funding for housing development is unlikely. "I don't see much effort to increase that. And given the economy, I don't see a picture of state government changing too much."