That’s in one of the nation’s fastest growing metro areas, where the need is sure to grow.
Whenever I asked officials about it, whenever I wondered what would happen on a bitter, cold night when even the most reluctant vagabond knew to come inside, the answers had to do with finding room here and there, with granting motel vouchers or with vague promises that the homeless would be quickly transitioned out of shelters and into more permanent housing.
“This time last year, the Road Home’s downtown shelter was generally serving about 200 women a night, and now we have more than 250,” Christina Davis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Service, told the Deseret News.
A couple of thoughts come to mind.
The first is to put this in a bit of perspective.
The political leaders who devised this system deserve a great deal of credit for tackling an enormous problem with good intentions. Until Operation Rio Grande started two years ago, the area around Rio Grande Street was out of control. It was a daily scene of violence and debauchery; a place where the powerful could prey on the weak with impunity. People literally were dying, and, despite the homeless shelter there, it was the last place you would want to send a homeless person.
I toured the area in the middle of this, speaking to nearby business owners who told horror stories about dealing with human waste and violence that kept customers away.
Operation Rio Grande was the first effort against this that had staying power. For the first time, multiple jurisdictions, including the state, got involved, recognizing that homelessness was a state problem and not something only Salt Lake City should deal with.
Since the operation began, the area has improved considerably. Those who used to go there to prey on the weak now know to expect consequences. And the new shelters are designed to be safer.
The second thought is that, as any successful business person will attest, success requires nimbleness and the ability to change course when something isn’t working.
That’s not easy when a project is directed by politicians using taxpayer funds. But at the least, the coalition now tasked with handling homeless matters needs to be thinking of ways to expand shelters.
The third thought is that it’s important to keep the shelter on Rio Grande open until it’s clear the rest of the system can handle the area’s needs and its overflow on cold nights. That may take a while.
As I have written many times before, the better choice would have been to build one large shelter facility, with movable partitions separating the types of homeless people and with the ability to adapt quickly to overflow demands for one particular type. A central campus would have made it cheaper to provide services, as well as food, and the shelter could have been built far enough from the urban core so as not to attract people wanting to victimize the less fortunate.
It’s too late for that now. But it isn’t too late to devise strategies that don’t rely too much on extra beds at St. Vincent De Paul or motel vouchers during the deadliest nights.
Even the Road Home was too small for the area’s needs on extreme weather nights. Building fewer beds never made much sense.
Then again, handing out motel vouchers is nothing new. The Road Home was doing that two years ago when it closed its family wing. And the extra pressure on the new women’s shelter could be a sign that more people are willing to accept services at the new facility, which is cleaner and more inviting than the old.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, need to understand that homelessness is not a problem that can be solved for good, the way you can devise a water system to handle the needs of a growing population. Some people will suffer debilitating problems, lose jobs, experience mental illness or struggle with substance abuse — always.
Utah’s leaders deserve a lot of credit for facing the problem head on, and for finding ways to help as many people as possible get their lives back. But they also need to be nimble enough to change and adapt when things get too crowded.