Of all the time, effort and money invested so far in addressing the crisis of homelessness in Utah, the third phase of the campaign — to help those living on the streets and in shelters to move permanently into the workforce — has the potential to deliver a beneficial impact. Operation Rio Grande is expected to cost $67 million over two years. If a sustainable process can be developed to help the homeless find long-term stability, it will be worth it.
A dozen residents of the Road Home recently participated in a job-training exercise hosted by Okland Construction to match up people receiving homeless services with available jobs. It was the first of several similar efforts being mustered as part of the third phase of Operation Rio Grande, which contemplates a holistic approach to reorganizing programs to more effectively house the homeless and help them reach a point of self-sufficiency.
It is a tough task, given the number of people who have chronically turned to the streets as a result of addiction, mental health issues or other troubles. But now employment counselors will begin meeting one-on-one with those in the Rio Grande area and assessing their future work potential to ensure that those with the ability to hold a job and transition off the streets are equipped with the necessary skills and opportunities to do so.
The Rio Grande campaign has so far had success in disrupting a wave of drug dealing and other criminal activity that plagued the area in which the homeless gathered for various services. While the atmosphere there has improved, other neighborhoods are reportedly seeing an upsurge in vagrancy and other problems likely spurred by the dispersion of the population that previously hovered in the Pioneer Park area. That demonstrates there is still much to be done to help the homeless population.
The civic leaders marshaling the Rio Grande campaign deserve credit for a comprehensive approach to the problem that includes creation of new shelters, construction of additional affordable housing units, as well as a coordinated approach by law enforcement and social services agents to deal in constructive ways with the criminal element.
Such an all-inclusive approach demands a job training and placement component, which is being addressed by the “Dignity of Work” campaign. As it moves forward, the effort will bring in more prospective employers and establish more job training and placement services. On a separate level, another important component is the effort to promote greater educational and vocational opportunities for young people to allow them to escape a cycle of intergenerational poverty that has long contributed to the homeless problem.
There are stereotypes associated with homelessness that portray a person living on the streets as someone unwilling or incapable of changing their behavior. A significant number of those displaced from stable housing are suffering from deep-seated personal problems that are difficult to overcome. Getting them into a situation in which they are able to apply themselves at a workplace and remain employed is a daunting challenge.
It’s good to see public and private interests are willing to take on that challenge in a compassionate, intelligent and persistent way. How much success they have remains to be seen, but every person who is helped along the path of helping themselves sets an example of hope for all of those in similar situations who are struggling to find a better life.