This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Each night, The Road Home Shelter houses 1,100 of our city's homeless men, women and children. The newly proposed three, 200-bed shelters scattered throughout the city will leave us about 500 beds short. After construction is complete, The Road Home will be demolished, putting our most vulnerable population back on the streets and out in the cold.
Abandoning The Road Home shelter is part of the Station Center Project, an initiative the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency says will convert Rio Grande into the city's new "premier mixed-use urban neighborhood." All will agree the area has become nightmarish riddled with crime and rampant drug use but gentrification will only diffuse these problems and put more people on the streets overnight, simultaneously displacing long-standing homeless resource centers in the area.
Instead, the city's leaders should funnel funding for the newly proposed shelters into the existing structure in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Positive efforts have been made to address needs specific to Rio Grande, including drastic lighting changes, public restrooms with attendants, adding social workers to the Salt Lake Police Department and the recent passage of House Bill 365. New provisions in this bill allow drug deals within 100 feet of a homeless shelter to be prosecuted as felonies. These epitomize the types of cultural and legal changes pivotal to reducing crime and increasing safety.
The Road Home has won numerous prestigious awards, including the Nonprofit Sector Achievement Award. The impending closure of the shelter will disastrously impact those who reside there, and the community at large. There have been cries of "not in my backyard" with the unveiling new shelter plans. The planning committee also failed to consult and seek public opinion. The secrecy surrounding the plans silenced the public and prevented social workers from providing input. This was in stark contrast to Mayor Jackie Biskupski's statements, "We want [ending homelessness] to be a collaborative process … I don't want to be a mayor who says, 'It's this way or the highway.'"
Although the Rio Grande neighborhood may currently find itself in chaos, many of Salt Lake's homeless access resources clustered in the area, and to many it is home. To the average citizen, homelessness is too often seen as little more than a social burden, and many falsely assume it to be the result of poor life choices. However, major cities nationwide report the current primary causes for homelessness are lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty, respectively. Unmet mental health and addiction needs show up later down the list.
We as social workers seek to challenge social injustices and promote the rights and well-being of those living in poverty. By ignoring the current homeless crisis, we are all turning our backs on individuals during their greatest time of need. The city is failing to maximize its resources by reinventing the wheel and opening three replacement shelters, when funding should instead be allocated to revitalizing the Road Home shelter and increasing affordable housing.
Instead of tax dollars going into entirely new and expensive projects, why not take that same funding and invest it into an already established shelter? If the answer is to make Rio Grande the next hipster hangout, filled with trendy restaurants and upscale lofts, think again.
The Road Home already offers fundamental services dedicated to getting people and families the assistance they desperately need. They are the gateway to well-established social services with case management, housing programs and referrals to community partners. Instead of pouring our dollars into new, guinea-pig projects, let's instead invest in reforming Rio Grande, creating a safer space for all community members, homeless or not.
Cameron Haynes and Hannah Grey are master's candidates in the University of Southern California School of Social Work.