No issue has consumed Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah more in the past few years than the challenge of homelessness. As frustration grows and the issue intensifies — with more and more people and population groups needing shelter — so do the tangible and visible impacts across the region. Leaders in our community who have stepped forward with clear and workable solutions deserve our thanks.
Private-sector heroes like Pamela Atkinson, Matt Minkovitch, Palmer DePaulis, Harris Simmons and Kathy Bray, among many others, have been crucial players in the work about how best to resolve the homelessness crisis. Other difference-makers include countless community members who have volunteered resources and time at homeless shelters, medical facilities or food banks. And there are those who have experienced homelessness firsthand who have exercised strength and courage in overcoming enormous odds to change their circumstances.
In the public sector, there also are heroes. Most recently, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Draper Mayor Troy Walker and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes have all stepped forward and made difficult decisions, taking arrows from a frustrated public. Agency officials have worked tirelessly to help the homeless and analyze options for decision-makers. In Salt Lake City, the county mayor’s role was especially vital following Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s bungled site-selection process and subsequent shirking of her responsibilities (and her strident campaign promises) to participate in meaningful solutions.
Of course there are no quick or easy fixes to homelessness and its community impacts. The same issue permeates every major urban area in the country, as billions of dollars and varying approaches are spent in search of solutions. As I noted in a previous column on homelessness, there are short-term and long-term issues that must be addressed, and a number of those are being tackled by both Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City.
After years of discussion and debate about the different approaches to homeless facility development, public and private leaders with a stake in the outcome decided in 2015 on the “scattered facilities” model. Under this approach, support resources will be co-located with smaller shelters for distinct populations, and these facilities will be geographically separate from one another. The aim of this approach is to minimize neighborhood impacts and to tailor the range of services available to our homeless residents.
The downside of scattered sites is the increased “not in my backyard” opposition of most residents. Our locally elected officials experienced this in spades at recent public meetings on homeless facility site selection — as I did during my years in public office around facility siting. It takes patience and humility to work effectively through these highly challenging processes.
Mayor McAdams exhibited those qualities. He understood that transparent and inclusive local decision-making could deliver the best siting decisions for the region. He understood, too, that the process would be controversial and politically risky. Working with his team to identify preliminary sites, listen to public input and add and withdraw potential locations, he was able to deliver final recommendations based on the merits of the sites.
Certainly there are critics of the selected locations. But while Salt Lake City remained quiet, Mayor McAdams stepped alone into the fire, making the hard decisions that I believe will benefit the public and our community in the long run.
That kind of leadership is rare and should be applauded by a public that understands well the importance of compassionate and impactful assistance to the most vulnerable in our community. Our recent experience has shown, once again, that grand pronouncements about ending homelessness — and hollow criticism of those who are working tirelessly on the problem — are unproductive and irresponsible.
While facility programming, design and construction move forward in the coming months, it will take constructive cooperation to achieve success. Issues like distinct homeless population needs, intake systems and diversion from shelters, drug and mental illness treatment, job creation, neighborhood advisory participation and contingency plans for overcrowding must be effectively developed.
Salt Lake City and Utah were once considered national leaders in innovation and success around homelessness. It is time for the city to re-engage and play a more constructive role. Mayor Biskupski's recently proposed chain-link fence to block homeless people from using an established pedestrian walkway is an unconstructive and unworkable approach to fixing the problem. I am hopeful that she will end her silence and join Mayor McAdams and others in a thoughtful, truly collaborative process to build smart, new facilities and redesign our homeless service system.
Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.