News editors sometimes make a fundamental error when reporting on the drug-addicted and the homeless, treating the two as if they are one and the same. Reporters sometimes use the two terms interchangeably, causing the rest of us to fall into the same trap.
As recently as this month, the two Salt Lake City dailies have ran stories that continue to do this, which is a disservice to those who suffer from addiction, those who are without a place to call home and the general population.
The Salt Lake Tribune ran a Page 1 story, "Homeless-rehabilitation planners 'heartened' by program's early results." Aside from complaints from Mayor Biskupski and others—that insufficient jail capacity often makes the Operation Diversion choices a hollow threat because subjects know they can reject therapy and not have to face jail time—the article noted the minority of homeless are people suffering from addiction or mental illness. Yet, the article headline began with the word homeless and Page 1 ended with: "Please see HOMELESS, A5."
"HOMELESS," of course, was not the subject. It really was about crime, drugs and rehab. On Page A5, the article continued to detail the success of Operation Diversion, which offers addicts a choice of jail or treatment, while lessening various consequences, such as homelessness and crime. The headline, again, wasn't about drugs, police success, deterrence or treatment. No, just "homeless." So, for those among us who have been weaned away from in-depth analysis and get our news and perceptions from tweets and headlines, what do we conclude? We conclude that the addicts, criminals and homeless individuals and their families are irrevocably linked.
Former Utah State Sen. Scott Howell is an active member of the Pioneer Park Coalition (PPC), along with Tiffany Price, a Rio Grande neighborhood business owner. Recently, they met with me regarding their perception that that homeless problem and crime are exacerbated by The Road Home shelter.
We met because Howell and I have become friends and have worked together to advance other civic issues. In my opinion, he's a good guy. But he, Price and other local business owners in PPC are not without conflicting interests. The Rio Grande area is experiencing an economic-development surge and the shelter property would be very valuable if there weren't so many poor people around.
PPC gets support from some legislators and government officials, but they are getting additional help, perhaps unwittingly, from the press. PPC photocopies and distributes articles like one from the Deseret News headlined, "How a historic property became a haven for drug addicts," a well-written story that traces the history of one area landlord and his deteriorating, abandoned building that has become, according to the article "a magnet for the homeless and drug addicts."
The presumptions are:
1. Open drug abuse is killing the Rio Grande area, and business is suffering.
2. Illegal drug abuse and homelessness are one and the same.
3. Get rid of homeless people in the Rio Grande area and business will thrive.
In a past column [Opinion, Oct. 16, 2016, "Solving Homelessness"], which Howell was kind enough to forward to more than 600 PPC members), I said that shelter beds of any kind are not a long-term solution, but maintaining those beds is critical until a solution is at hand. I believe that no reduction in shelter capacity can occur until we, as a community, fully implement a way out of chronic homelessness.
For about half of the homeless shelter clients, this means medical and mental health support and drug programs that work. The other half require training for jobs that pay above-subsistence wages. There must also be a quantum leap in affordable housing units. Until we can resolve the root causes, more shelter beds will be needed.
Solutions from Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the State of Utah are conceptually reasonable, and I applaud Mayors Biskupski and McAdams, House Speaker Hughes and Gov. Herbert. But these efforts are taking too long and lack scalability to be more than a drop in the bucket. Pioneer Park Coalition and other good citizens, too, are moving at the glacial speed of government.
A couple of months ago, I took a tour of the Salt Lake County Jail. It was fascinating. More recently, I toured The Road Home shelter. Both the jail and shelter facilities are dreary. There are other similarities, except that the homeless are imprisoned by health and economics rather than judicial sentence.
In the face of such dreariness, the 110 employees of The Road Home organization are heroic, providing services to as many as 1,500 individuals a night, and more than 10,000 a year, most of whom—except for the lack of available housing and a livable wage—could be back into productive society.
So, in addition to building 600 beds away from Rio Grande to replace the 1,100 beds now operating (a concept seriously in need of remedial math tutoring), all possible resources should be directed toward job training to lift living wages. And, by all means, please increase support for organizations that will commit to developing more rental units and who give life-saving shelter to the thousands of homeless Utahns who now must carry everything they own on their backs.