Thursday marked one year since the state Division of Community and Housing issued a statement effectively saying chronic homelessness had been solved in Utah.
The “Housing First” initiative, a unique program through which qualifying homeless people are given an apartment before other needed services, had reduced the numbers by 91 percent over 10 years, and officials said they knew all the remaining needy people by name.
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Semantics can be tricky, especially when it comes to national or international media looking for a story. The word “chronic” got lost in much of the reporting that followed. In perhaps the silliest example, The Daily Show sent a reporter to wander the streets of Salt Lake City in search of a homeless person. He circled Temple Square and parts of City Creek before calling it good.
Ironically, only a few blocks to the west, an entire neighborhood – nine square blocks, according to the Pioneer Park Coalition — is dealing with a homeless problem of epic proportions.
Politicians have formed committees and talks are underway to find solutions, but the day-to-day reality of life near Rio Grande Street, home to the Road Home shelter, is raw.
I toured much of it this week with two coalition members, talking with business owners and workers. It didn’t take long for me to detect a common theme.
Workers routinely find people sleeping near business entrances, see drug deals in broad daylight and sex acts in the open. A necessary daily routine involves picking up used needles from sidewalks and parking lots and, perhaps most disturbing, cleaning what is left when people use doorways and sidewalks as bathrooms.
“Bio-hazards,” is what Ian Henderson of the Rio Grande Café judiciously calls it.
Few businesses felt the brunt of a police shooting two months ago and the nightly protests that followed quite like the café, a popular eating spot on the north end of an ornate, restored Rio Grande train depot.
On the night of the shooting, police forced the place to close and required every customer to have a police escort out. Owner Pete Henderson wryly notes this was not good for business. He also notes it wasn’t the first time he was forced to close.
In The Rose, a popular neighborhood lunch spot in a quaint and vintage building that originally housed a meatpacking plant in 1918, owner Erica O’Brien talks about concerns for her employees’ safety.
Her bakers complain about feeling unsafe as they come to work before dawn, often finding people in the driveway. She wanted to decorate the park strips in front with attractive plants and flowers, but vagrants started hiding drugs in them.
And “always defecation. Always,” she said. Last week, someone broke into the restaurant and stole computers.
At A&Z Produce, owner Jay Clark is happy to hand me photo evidence that people start fires in his building’s window wells to keep warm at night. He was forced to build a fence to stop it.
A fixture in the neighborhood since 1972, the produce company is considering moving, he admits.
Spy Hop, a unique digital-media company geared toward helping high school students “find their digital voice,” according to its website, already has announced it is moving. No one was available to say on the record why this is so. As I visit the place, a man sweeping the sidewalk outside has a verbal altercation with a man who has thrown a plastic bottle.
The owners and workers I talk to share a common concern about the truly needy who come to the neighborhood for help, which is that they aren’t getting help. “Those people you saw on 5th West are not the quintessential homeless people,” Pete Henderson said. “Many of them live in the ‘burbs. They come down here because that’s where you party.”
Those I talk to share a curiosity about what city and county leaders will accomplish as they search for new shelter sites, and whether current problems merely will go elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a report on theguardian.com this week finally told the story the world missed a year ago. Utah has not come close to solving its overall homeless problem, which seems to rival that of anywhere in the nation.