Can You Really Look Away? | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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News » Opinion

Can You Really Look Away?

Taking a Gander: The homeless in Utah have grown in numbers since COVID, but solutions to their plight continue to elude us.

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Try to visualize it: You're sitting in a lawn chair, drinking your favorite beverage, reading a chilling crime novel. Then it happens: As you're gazing up at the sky as an airliner makes its final approach into the new SLC International Airport. Because it's totally routine, you rarely even notice the planes, but you briefly glance up. It's nothing unusual.

Then you notice something—a little black speck falling from the sky—and you have the immediate dread that it's an aircraft part that somehow came loose—and it's headed your way. As the speck hurtles toward the ground, you see that it's an irregular shape, and then you experience the horror: It isn't an aircraft part; it's a human being—a stowaway who's about to die.

The body snaps the plastic fence on the east side of your garden—the frozen shape leaving an imprint in the concrete patio; you involuntarily turn away from the bloody scene and call 911.

I doubt that this has ever happened in Utah, but this kind of tragedy has been repeated more than once in neighborhoods of London (UK) that lie under Heathrow's approach path. As conditions deteriorate in both North African and sub-Saharan countries, more and more refugees risk their lives to escape the poverty and violence that plague countries on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea. Much of the finality of African despair comes in the form of drownings, as the desperate lay their lives on the line in hopes of finding a better and safer life. But there are a few who sneak into the landing gear-wells of aircraft, unaware that they will likely die. Between hypoxia, hypothermia or simply being crushed during the landing gear retraction, few survive.

This is not the sort of problem that clouds the waking hours of most Utahns, but that doesn't mean the subject is irrelevant. Because of its landlocked location, Utah is not the immediate destination of the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. That doesn't mean that we can look away from the kind of suffering that inspires the voyages and flights to a better life.

Recently, my wife and I had lunch at the Gateway. Having not been there for years, we were unsure of exactly where to enter the complex. We ended up just to the south and were horrified at what we saw. The area that borders the Gateway is strewn with rows of tents and cardboard shelters. Though Salt Lake City has always had its homeless problems, we had never before seen such a graphic display.

Exacerbated by the year-long COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Utahns in financial straits has grown to a magnitude that no conscientious resident can ignore. Though many of the homeless are there because of substance abuse problems and mental illness, there's no way to overlook the fact that the health crisis has exploded the numbers of Utahns who are without proper housing. Foreclosures and evictions are problems not yet adequately dealt with, and the momentum isn't gone just because the vaccination programs are accelerating. We have, for many, fixed the vulnerability to the virus, but the economic tragedy is far from over.

Utah's disenfranchised homeless are the tragedy of a perfect storm, one in which those people, who were teetering economically and personally before the pandemic, have become the ostensible dregs of society. I don't know about you, but I cannot just dismiss this problem and blame the homeless for their present plight. Whatever our politics, we must address the problem. I don't have any answers and undoubtedly the city and county mayors and the state's new homelessness czar are shaking their heads, looking for long-term solutions.

At least some of these tent-dwelling humans will find help in the post-pandemic bloom of fully open and operating businesses, but many may never have homes again. This is about a devastating tragedy, and we cannot just look away, nor can we believe that the repetitive bulldozing of the camps will provide a realistic and permanent fix.

Though we live in a world where suffering and desperation are rampant, most Utahns are unaware of just how vast the problem has become. Of course, there's a difference between the flood of Africa's refugees and Utah's homeless problem, but the reasons are largely the same: These are people in pain.

What can we do for the suffering, disenfranchised homeless? Many of them, through no fault of their own, feel the same hopelessness that inspires Africans and others in their dangerous—and often fatal—forays of hope. Our people don't choose to live in cardboard boxes and tents. It's about poverty, mental health, violence and the displacement that has been such a cruel part of the pandemic.

Though the distance between our homeless and those of other countries is vast, there is little difference in their day to day lives.

It shouldn't take people falling out of the sky to remind us of the human condition. The rest of the world certainly has no exclusivity on the pain of being alive and displaced, and Utahns must do more for its homeless victims. Let's find a way.

The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.

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