This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Over the past few years, our community has experienced a homeless crisis that has touched thousands of Utahns including social service workers, health care providers, police and fire teams along with local businesses and downtown residents.
Obviously, the people most affected are the men, women and children who have lost their homes. Whether they have camped out, lived in their cars, couch-surfed or stayed in emergency shelters they have all faced difficult choices and sometimes-dangerous conditions. It is hard to imagine the sense of insecurity and exposure physical and emotional that stems from losing your home. This vulnerability can be debilitating.
Throughout this crisis, providers in our community have served an unprecedented number of families and individuals, drawn to the support and opportunities provided by an urban center. While providers have done an incredible job offering emergency shelter and meeting other basic needs, we know that emergency shelter is not a solution to homelessness. We can do better.
In the past our community has focused on emergency services instead of focusing more on preventing homelessness in the first place. The primary way people currently access service is through actually arriving at an emergency shelter. We believe that more affordable and humane steps can be taken before reaching this critical point, reducing the burden on providers and allowing them to focus on actual emergency situations. In the past we have sometimes adopted a one-size-fits-all approach that has not always been the best option for specific sub-populations like families, youth, domestic violence victims or people leaving prison.
The ongoing crisis has forced us to re-evaluate our strategic goals and long-term plans for helping to move families and individuals out of homelessness. Better yet, we are thinking critically now about how to prevent homelessness in the first place. We have done a good job of finding housing for the chronically homeless, defined as people who experience homelessness for more than a year. Now we must redouble our efforts to help other groups of homeless people, particularly avoiding the tipping point for people becoming part of the chronically homeless group.
Something unprecedented has happened. All of the disparate voices that care about this issue have come together to unite around outcomes that result in system-wide solutions. Organized around Salt Lake County's Collective Impact approach, with full support from Salt Lake City, the downtown community, providers, law enforcement, local businesses, homeless individuals and advocates are all speaking with one voice to support solutions.
We support a housing-based prevention plan that prioritizes families, children and workers, and that keeps people from losing their homes in the first place. We support the development of additional emergency shelters that focus on the specific needs of specific groups of homeless people. And we support a data-driven, coordinated system that integrates homeless services to ensure that no one falls through the cracks.
State participation is key to helping find solutions. Homelessness is not a downtown issue or problem unique to Salt Lake City. It is a statewide concern and requires statewide participation to find real solutions.
We are proud to support important pieces of legislation this year sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Rep. Steve Eliason and Rep. Francis Gibson. Each piece of legislation tackles the issue from a different angle, but when combined these bills will make it easier for our community to find and develop housing options, track success, and fund emergency and long-term housing needs. A Medicaid expansion that addresses the medical problems, substance abuse or mental illness challenges faced by some homeless people in our state will complement all these efforts.
It's tempting to think of all homeless individuals as a single group. But that doesn't reflect reality and perpetuates stereotypes that can actually prevent reform. The root causes of homelessness are complex and each individual or family has a unique story. As we think through regional, system-wide improvements to our homeless system it is critical to remember that we are talking about real people, moms, dads, brothers and sisters who now find themselves in need.
We need a system that reflects and responds to the unique life circumstances of each homeless person. Our approach will help to prevent homelessness, rapidly re-house people and provide emergency care that is thoughtfully applied to specific needs.
Crisis has brought our community together.
And if any community in the world can find compassionate and effective solutions it is here in Utah where we have the strongest economy in America, bipartisan support for finding effective long-term solutions and a community core of decency and compassion that informs all our best decisions.
Jason Mathis is executive director of the Downtown Alliance.