When public solutions become complicated — such as the way politicians are fashioning new “resource centers” for the homeless along the Wasatch Front — it’s useful to step back and ask the “blank slate” question.
That is, if you had a blank slate and could design from scratch the ideal way to help the homeless, is this how it would look?
Would you build three equally large “resource centers,” each charged with handling separate types of homeless people who, inconveniently, don’t come in equally large numbers? Would you spread them out to various locations away from services the homeless need? Would you deliberately build
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smaller shelters and plan to give motel vouchers to the overflow?
Or would you, as some have suggested, build one central campus, away from the urban core, and design it in such a way that the various types of homeless people (single men, single women, families with children), could be strictly separated but with movable barriers to accommodate demand, and with services on hand to help with substance abuse and mental health treatment?
The state, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are heading in the first direction. It may be too late to change. We had all better hope they have chosen the right way.
Some parts of the current plan make brilliant sense. In a meeting with the combined KSL and Deseret News editorial boards Monday, county Mayor Ben McAdams described how a third party organization would act as traffic control, deciding where to send the homeless who enter the system and how best to serve them. A separate organization, with a board that includes all major funders, would do the same for allocating money. That way, programs that don’t work wouldn’t be nursed along forever.
Those are solid accountability methods, but they easily could be administered through a single central location, as well. So could the subsidized housing plan leaders are envisioning.
McAdams is struggling to get the word out that the new plan won’t take the crime problems associated with the current shelter and simply recreate them at three separate locations. The mayors of West Valley City and South Salt Lake didn’t get the memo as they started protesting the moment locations in their cities became finalists for the third shelter.
It’s hard to envision something based on descriptions and assurances. However, it’s also hard to follow any logical thought progression to the current plan.
The first idea was for two shelters within Salt Lake City, with 250 beds each. That became four shelters of 150 beds each, a plan McAdams said proved too expensive.
So Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes stepped in, calling a Feb. 14 meeting among political leaders that ended with two shelters in the city of 200 beds each, and with the county being charged to locate a third one outside city limits. McAdams said Hughes wanted this site selected by the end of the legislative session last week, but agreed to extend the deadline to March 30, which now is rapidly approaching.
That plan also called for lawmakers to pass a bill that would take a bit of sales tax from each county in the state to help with ongoing costs — a tangible symbol of how homelessness is a statewide problem. A county could avoid this tax by opening a shelter of its own.
But lawmakers didn’t get that memo, either, and killed the bill in a committee after it was changed to extract property taxes, instead.
Political solutions, by definition, are messy. They require compromises and accommodations. Utah’s politicians deserve credit for understanding their role in helping people who, McAdams correctly says, need someone to “redeem the dignity of self reliance and independence.” It is ennobling to involve a broad swath of the community, including private donors, in the cause.
He also makes sense as he describes how shelters are little more than emergency rooms, while Utah’s homeless instead need an entire healthcare system to return them to self-sufficiency.
That still doesn’t explain why, given a blank slate, you would design three scattered centers instead of one.