This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Earlier this month, while flying home from Salt Lake City, I watched the documentary film on the Kitty Genovese story. This is the infamous story of a woman being stabbed to death in New York City while dozens of witnesses did nothing to help her.
In addition to socio- and psychological research, the incident inspired changes in policy and practice, notably the creation of the 911 system, and passage of Good Samaritan laws. In 1964, the year she was murdered, scientists could not explain why people ignored cries for help.
Unfortunately, Kitty's killer knew what scientists did not: In response to a question from an investigator regarding how he could attack a woman near so many people, the murderer said, "I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do."
This July 4 I came to Salt Lake City with my 15-year-old son. After checking into our hotel we stepped out for dinner. A number of homeless people had set up camp in the park across from our hotel. Some had full push carts. A hammock was strung between two trees. Others just lay in their clothes on the ground.
We walked downtown, and twice during the 10-minute walk we were solicited by homeless individuals. One told me both his parents had passed away and he moved from Colorado for cheaper rent. His apartment in Colorado cost $900, here in Salt Lake City it was $600.
"When your parents are gone, there isn't anyone to call for help," he said.
The next day, on our way to the movie theater, my son and I turned down Rio Grande Street and found ourselves walking through hundreds of homeless people. It was over 100 degrees. The Catholic Community Services building on the left side offered free water, and a shelter was across the street. Having spent years working with the homeless, the scene was not unfamiliar to me, but familiarity didn't make it better.
The following morning, the front page of the The Salt Lake Tribune featured an article on homelessness in Salt Lake City. According to the article, two incidents during the 4th of July holiday had inspired official outcry. In one case, a homeless person assaulted a pro baseball player in an attempted robbery, and in another a woman drove her car into a group of homeless persons, killing one.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes suggested using the National Guard to deal with the situation which he referred to as a "disgrace." Hughes also expressed concern that officials may not be "ready to do the things necessary to clean that area up."
I agree with part of Speaker Hughes's assessment: that fellow citizens left in the street without shelter or food particularly when there are plenty of empty spaces and enough food to feed all of us is a disgrace.
The good news is we know how to solve these problems, and they are relatively easy to solve. From studying communities that have eradicated homelessness, we know that giving homes to homeless people solves the problem. To be sure, other support services, such as education, job training and health care also cut costs, but decades of data indicate that giving the homeless homes saves millions of tax dollars. So, I'm not sure what Hughes meant by "the things necessary to clean that area up," but what's necessary is housing the homeless.
Further investigation determined that the initial report on the Genovese case was exaggerated. There were not 38 witnesses who did nothing out of sadistic apathy. Rather there were people who heard Kitty scream and did nothing for various reasons. Some didn't know what was happening, nor the gravity of the attack. Others were afraid or didn't know what to do. Many assumed someone else was already assisting. Regardless of their reasons, when news of their inaction broke, almost all felt guilt and shame.
The homeless die decades younger than the rest of us. Often they die from untreated infections, exposure and attacks like the recent vehicle incident. We are witnesses to an emergency. Indeed, a number of communities in the U.S. have recently declared homelessness a state of emergency. Do something. Call 911. Help. Don't wait for emergency to become tragedy. There is no better cause for application of eminent domain than housing our fellow citizens.
Gordon Brown, Ph.D., is a founder and director of A Place to Stand, a non-profit organization based in the Washington, D.C., area that has researched and developed cost-effective, holistic, sustainable systems for eradicating homelessness and hunger.