Lucius Hatch, 37, laid down in the street on Forth South a little over a week ago, and within seconds a car ran over him and killed him.
Hatch was inebriated. A police investigation indicated that he was also considered mentally ill and was scheduled for and evalutation.Further investigation disclosed that he had been picked up for public intoxification hours before his death, but because the detox facility was bursting at the seams, and the county jail was too crowded to take him, Hatch signed a paper agreeing to appear for a psychiatric evaluation and was released.
Later, different people alleged that mental health officials and police officers both considered him a "danger to himself and possibly others," but no one knew what to do with him. There was no room in the programs established to help him.
Since then, I have received several phone calls from people who want to know why he wasn't taken to the homeless shelter to "sober up."
That question shouldn't even have been asked. The homeless shelter can't be used as a detox center.
People who are intoxicated absoultely will not be allowed into the shelter. And anyone staying at the shelter is subjected to a cursory "pat down" for alcohol or weapons. It the staff finds that someone has successfully smuggled alcohol in, it will be confiscated.
Anyone asked to leave the shelter because of alcohol - or other reason, like fighting - will do so or be escorted out by the police.
The people who run the shelter are dead-serious about enforcing policy. They have to be. The logic behind the strict policy is simple, There are up to 200 men at the shelter at any one time and that's a lot of people under any circumstances. If you throw in a wild card like alcohol, there's a good chance the result will be chaos. Property might be damaged. Worse, someone might be injured or killed.
Three staff members are on duty at night at the shelter. They have enough problems dealing with a sober hungry, homeless, poverty-stricken population - about one-third of which suffers some form of mental illness. They don't need - and refuse to deal with - the additional problems of substance abuse.
When the subject of homelessness comes up in conversations with friends and acquaintances, I hear strange things: People who live on the streets are there because they choose to be. The homeless are all crazy, The homeless are drunken bums with no dreams, no goals. The homeless are thieves and beggars.
Any time you lump people into one narrow category, you tell lies about some - if not most - of them. People never fit into nice, neat niches. The only categorical statement you can make about the homeless is that they are poor - and they need some help.
Those mistaken perceptions may be why I meet so many peolpe who are adamantly opposed to building a homeless shelter, or who think Utah is "Homeless Heaven" because we are so "good to them that they flock in from all over."
Any delief that the transient shelter is - or should be - a flop house for the drunk and disorderly - obscures the real purpose behind the shelter.
The shelter is protection from the elements - and the small percentage of the homeless that prey on the larger percentage of the homeless.
When the new shelter opens this year, it will be even more that that. It will be a entryway to services - from health care to assistance programs. It will be a place to shower and shave and clean up, which will do a lot to improve how they view themselves - and how others view them.
Some of them might even find jobs more easily, once they have the facilities to take care of hygiene.
Substance abuse requires a whole different atmosphere, with different grounds rules. Detox facilities need professional guidelines and experienced staff.
And we need them.
People should be disturbed that a man who was ill - seemingly physically and mentally - died in a street in Salt Lake City because there was no place for him. But they shouldnt't be asking "What's the homeless shelter for, then?"
No, the real question is "What do we do about the detox situation?" If we are going to deal with the problem, we need to commit enough money to support an adequate number of beds in the facilities. And we need to come up with programs - with teeth in them - to curb inebriates.
It's a wonder we don't have more Lucius Hatches lying in out streets.