SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe you’ve seen them — tents and sleeping bags suddenly appearing in places they weren’t before, unkempt people wandering or congregating in neighborhoods once considered far from Salt Lake City’s homeless problem.
Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking recently told the Deseret News that many of the people who caused problems in the Rio Grande neighborhood, site of the city’s main homeless shelter, were not homeless at all.
“We suppose they went back home (after police began an intense crackdown last summer),” he said. “I think we disrupted a lot of people that were down there for just all the wrong reasons.”
That doesn’t jibe with what Richard Rueckert, a homeless person living in Liberty Park, told the paper.
“There have always been drug deals going on down here (in Liberty Park),” he said, “but it’s to the point where they don’t even try to hide it anymore.”
That sounds eerily similar to a description of the Rio Grande area before the crackdown. It ought to illustrate two important things:
One is that state and local leaders can’t consider the problem solved just because they drove the criminal element out of downtown.
The other is that homelessness is a complicated matter.
State, city and county leaders have, without question, made the Rio Grande neighborhood safer than it was earlier this year. They have cordoned off a part of Rio Grande Street as a safe space for the homeless to be free of the criminal element that preys on them.
And yet it’s safe to say many homeless people have fled the area. Some are in Liberty Park, some are in the Ballpark neighborhood, where residents recently gave House Speaker Greg Hughes an earful during a community council meeting. Many have retreated to makeshift camps along the Jordan River, or to the canyons east of the city.
Five years ago, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” interviewed David Pirtle, a former homeless person who had become a member of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau. He talked about why, even on the coldest nights, he would avoid going to a shelter.
For one thing, he was suffering from schizophrenia, which gave him feelings of paranoia and a fear of being in large crowds. Many homeless people struggle with mental illnesses that keep them from making decisions in their own best interests.
The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 22 percent of homeless people have a severe and persistent mental illness. Add in alcohol and substance abuse, and you account for two-thirds of the homeless.
Pirtle raised another concern he once had.
He said he avoided shelters because "you hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that they're full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there's bedbugs and body lice."
“All I can say is that my fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting for me at that shelter, was worse than my fear of the known risk, you know, of staying out on the street.”
Shelters, then, have a trust issue. Even the new shelters being built around the Wasatch Front will have to overcome this in order to succeed.
Pirtle said his life finally turned around when he was arrested. It was the first time, he said, “anybody realized that I needed help.”
Like many homeless people, he felt forced to steal or commit other petty crimes to survive. The court system forced him to get mental health treatment and to enter a shelter, where he found things weren’t as bad as he thought.
Despite many valid criticisms, the politicians tackling homelessness in Salt Lake City have had a good start. They were right to conclude that the lawlessness around the Rio Grande neighborhood needed to end.
But ultimate success will take a larger community effort; a prolonged campaign to bring help to those who need it, to separate the homeless who may have committed minor crimes from the true criminals and to build trust with all sides, including people who live in regular neighborhoods that are being disrupted.
That won’t be a quick fix, and it won’t be solved just because new shelters open.