This time could be different, not just because successful business owners are involved, but because they seem genuinely interested in understanding what it means to be homeless and what it would take to help them.
The Pioneer Park Coalition, formed earlier this year with the aim of bringing all stakeholders together
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to find solutions, includes people like Bryson Garbett, president of Garbett Homes. He recently took research to a new level, leaving his wallet and smartphone at home, donning grubbies and wandering to The Road Home shelter for a three-day, four-night odyssey as a homeless person.
What he found was an ugly underbelly to a city known worldwide for clean streets and orderly people. He describes scenes rivaling anything a bigger city could provide, including brazen drug deals in broad daylight and prostitution. He also saw how this seedy underworld makes it difficult for destitute people to turn their lives around.
Standing in line for the chance to get one of the limited beds available each day, Garbett met Herbert, who he describes as a disarmingly bright guy. “He told me all about the dynasties in Egyptian history,” he said.
He also met a beef cutter from Utah who has been on the streets for three years, a guy just passing through from New York and others battling addictions or other demons that stand as barriers to a better life. These, he said, are mostly kind people who hide behind the veneer of profanity and harsh language.
For them, the orderly atmosphere inside the shelter was but a brief respite from the 24-hour “hell” of crimes that continue beyond the doors like the roaring waves of an ocean of filth.
This nightlife does not exist solely for the transients, although Garbett said he was solicited several times. The clientele includes well-dressed college-aged kids, young fathers with baby strollers and others who know where to go to score the drugs they seek.
Garbett didn’t get a bed the first night. He slept, or tried to, on a thin pad on the floor. Each morning, everyone was told to leave. But those who spent the day looking for work risked not getting a bed the next night, because the line for that starts forming again at 10 a.m.
But this isn’t just a Christmas Eve story about the least among us, although I’d venture to guess many people along the Wasatch Front give scant thought to these folks. It’s a story about finding ways to make a real difference.
The Pioneer Park Coalition is just one group involved in this. Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams have formed a committee with its own heavy hitters that will begin studying next month whether to move the shelters and other services.
They will no doubt consider Garbett’s experiences. They ought to question why, when he came to the shelter, he was interviewed once, then never given a followup appointment to consider strategies to help him. They should ask why the homeless are told to seek help at agencies around town, when many don’t have fare for transit. Coalition members wonder whether the Utah Transit Authority would allow some sort of card from the shelter as fare to certain destinations.
Business owner Tiffany Provost, a coalition member, stresses the need for data-driven solutions — keep track of people, assign case managers, issue temporary ID cards.
She and others are tired of working in a neighborhood where they feel unsafe. Garbett became concerned with the park and its environs after a bank turned him down for a loan to build condos in the neighborhood. They say they want to end the problem, not just sweep it away.
Back in 1995, I described Pioneer Park as “a green-carpeted one-stop-shopping center for criminals.” That was when the mayor at the time, Deedee Corradini, unveiled an expensive plan intended to turn the park and surrounding neighborhoods into a “funky, lively, mixed-use urban neighborhood.” It failed.
Nearly 20 years later, the only funk remains blue. Changing that won’t be easy. It will take the best efforts of political, business and social service professionals.
Just maybe, the right people are working on the problem this time.