This may be an uncomfortable truth at a time when people along the Wasatch Front are being lauded by the New Yorker, Fortune, USA Today, Adweek and others for having one of the most dynamic and promising economies in the land. Our so-called “silicon slopes” are producing hundreds of what Techcrunch calls “unicorns,” startups that now are worth at least $1 billion.
But the unicorns are galloping near the shadows of a sickly monster with spreading tentacles.
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The area’s other booming trend is homelessness.
Last spring I documented just how far it had spread around the Road Home shelter and how many business owners were struggling amid daily scenes of drug deals, sex acts, holdups and raw sewage on the streets.
Many of us, it seems, would rather not look, just as we’d rather not sit and examine the contents of our full vacuum cleaner bags.
Except, of course, that these are real people, not dirt that needs to be swept away.
With fall setting in, the problem has gotten worse. People are camping in all parts of the valley. As the Deseret News reported Tuesday, the 29-year-old son of the owner of the Rio Grande Café, a longtime popular establishment that now is in the middle of it all, has been assaulted twice in recent months while trying to protect customers.
The question is, why? The unemployment rate in Utah was 3.7 percent in August. It was just under 5 percent nationally. Surely, anyone who wants a job can find one, right?
I posed the question to Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, who met Monday with the combined KSL/Deseret News editorial boards. He blamed it, at least in part, on high rents.
“Even though unemployment numbers are pretty good, housing numbers are going through the roof, and the cost to a household for housing has been skyrocketing,” he said, adding that the homeless fall into three segments — the mentally ill, those addicted to substances and those who can’t afford to live. All three segments often intertwine.
That sounds possible, but also incomplete. No one seems to be able to show any data that definitely correlates high rents with homelessness, just as it’s hard to get an accurate tally on the homeless themselves. Is this a product of the disintegration of the family? Is it a manifestation of the growing ranks of unemployed adult men?
One thing Penfold said rings true. Salt Lake City is not alone.
“Everybody sort of thinks that they’re the only city dealing with homelessness,” he said. “And one of the things we always hear is the services are too nice because everybody’s coming here, which is clearly not the case. I would challenge you to spend a night in the shelter and you won’t come away thinking it’s a great place to go.”
From Seattle to Miami, every major city seems to be struggling with this rising tide. San Diego columnist Dan McSwain, confronting the same question, debunked what many are saying there, which is that the homeless come for the weather. “San Diego has been sunny and mild for thousands of years,” he wrote.
He suggests the city hire a “homeless czar” to coordinate services and resources. The state of Utah might want to consider a similar position.
Penfold and Council Chair James Rogers talk of the need for housing vouchers to get people off the streets. That’s a difficult task in a city with a 2 percent vacancy rate and rising rents. The mayor is expected to unveil a plan soon for dealing with the overflow. New shelters are in the works, but still many years off.
Police last week started Operation Diversion, designed to pull out the truly needy for treatment and prosecute the offenders who prey on them. Dozens have been arrested.
But by Tuesday morning, the Rio Grande area didn’t look much different than it has for the last several months. With colder temperatures settling in, the homeless were mostly covered with tattered blankets as they wandered or sought comfort on makeshift sidewalk beds.
Unless someone can figure out what really is causing this nationwide plague, it’s hard to see how anyone can find an answer.