Experts Weigh New Approach to Solving Homelessness

Salt Lake City—The homeless population has traditionally been aided by a single, centralized regional hub. But experts argue that a more scattered approach might be more effective in the prevention and recovery of homelessness.

Locally, that means scattering centers to help homeless and those who are in danger of becoming homeless across the Wasatch Front, rather than centralizing those services in the Rio Grande area, said panelists at the Urban Land Institute of Utah’s discussion on the topic Thursday morning.

“The entire services system right now is bottlenecking in the Rio Grande area,” said Shaleane Gee, director of special programs and partnerships for Salt Lake County. “That has been the magnet for services, funding, the homeless, and it’s kind of the gateway for all services across the Salt Lake County.”

Gee said because of the way these programs are structured, it’s far easier to access them if a person is actually homeless verses in critical danger of becoming homeless. Under the new, decentralized model, those services would attempt to help those in critical risk of homelessness before they need a shelter.

Micah Peters, CEO of Clearwater Homes, said a scattershot model would also allow people from various populations within the homeless population—victims of domestic violence, people who have lost their homes due to medical bills, recently released inmates, young adults who have recently aged out of the foster care system or have no family assistance, veterans, people struggling with mental illness or drug addiction—to get the specialized help they need to help them get back on their feet.

“When you broadbrush the homeless population and say we’re going to deal with it this way, it’s very ineffective,” he said. “The scattered site construct is going to allow us to address each of those populations, which will be much more effective.”

Both Gee and Peters said homeless shelters are used far too often in addressing homelessness.

“Shelter is not the solution for any of those people to get back on track,” Gee said.

She likened a shelter to an emergency room in a hospital: a necessary facility, but not the most specialized, cost-effective or long-term solution to community health.

“A key part we’re looking at, too, is reducing the need for shelter across the board,” Gee said. “you’re always going to need an emergency room, but you don’t want that emergency room to become the way you manage health across the board.”

Price also pointed out the eclectic population that tends to conglomerate in shelters isn’t always the most beneficial for all persons involved. If a parent with several children is staying at a shelter, they are likely in close quarters with several registered sex offenders who also call the facility home. Furthermore, he said, large shelters allow rampant drug trade in a way that smaller shelters don’t facilitate.

Gee said the scattershot approach to dealing with homelessness will be discussed for the next several months—especially as the Legislature moves into session. When thinking of how and where to implement the new approach, it’s important to look at other models around the country, she said, and no matter how it changes, the old system needs to stay in place until the new one is ready to go.

“There is a huge service system that has to be maintained while we change it,” she said, noting support would be necessary for both funding and zoning changes. “If we can take the best of what’s happening in other areas around the nation, and the worst and try to fix it, we could get a comprehensive solution moving forward.”

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