By Erin Mendenhall
On November 6, 2022
Reports of Jackson, Wyoming, sending their homeless people here are sad but no surprise.
A newspaper in Wyoming published a disturbing report this week: A state judge gave at least one unsheltered resident a choice: go to a treatment program in Jackson, Wyoming, or go to Salt Lake City. Sadly, I was not surprised.
In the days since, I’ve worked to learn more about this situation, and it’s still unclear how often this strategy has been employed and how many unsheltered Wyoming residents have been sent to Salt Lake City.
What we do know is: This is far from the first time this has happened.
For years, leaders of Utah cities and towns have quietly shared anecdotes of engaging in the same practice — depositing their unsheltered residents in Salt Lake City instead of providing their own services to help those residents get back on their feet.
Every major city – and many smaller ones – are on the frontlines of homelessness. The last complete nationwide Point In Time count in 2020 revealed that there are more than 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. There is no doubt that this crisis has reached epic proportions. People become homeless due to serious problems that demand comprehensive and compassionate work by all levels of government.
I empathize with Jackson. The revolving door in and out of jail for low-level crimes often associated with people experiencing homelessness is one of the most intractable problems that communities face. Many of these people suffer from serious mental health issues, substance use disorders, or both, and jail is often not the ultimate solution for them. Because there is quite literally nowhere else for them to go, they end up on the street.
Cities cannot solve homelessness on their own, but we must continue to do more of everything that is in our scope. That’s what we’ve been doing in Salt Lake City since day one of my administration.
During my time as mayor, Salt Lake City has worked tirelessly to bolster partnerships with county and state leaders, and together, we’re finally making progress, even on the wicked problem of the high-frequency, high impact individuals that cycle in and out of jail and treatment. It might not be as immediate as we want, but looking systemically at what levers the city can control (land use, public safety), and working with our partners at the county and state to sharpen their interventions (mental and behavioral health and homeless services), are steps that will have a ripple effect on the success we see in pulling people out of homelessness, and preventing them from entering it for decades to come.
Tackling this growing need in Salt Lake City has meant investing millions more than ever before in affordable housing and the creation of more than 400 units of permanent supportive housing. It’s meant creating the first tiny home village for today’s chronically homeless population. It’s meant distributing unprecedented rental and mortgage assistance to help keep people in their homes. It’s meant more on-street outreach – even Kayak Court – to help people eliminate barriers to housing and connect with services. And, yes, it has meant investing more in public safety to ensure that all people – housed and un-housed – are safe in our communities.
All these efforts – and so many more – prove that we are not willing to give up on finding ways to help and that we will not settle for being a city that sweeps this issue under the rug, leaving people to eke by as they camp in places and circumstances unfit for human habitation.
And yet, all these efforts, and so many others, still have not “solved” homelessness.
The truth is and always has been, no single city controls every contributor or every solution to this humanitarian crisis. But another truth is that too many cities shirk their responsibilities to their own residents in need by shipping them to another city. This has long been true among cities in Utah who send their residents to Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Midvale, Ogden or St. George. And now we know that people from an even greater distance are forced to become refugees, traveling hundreds of miles across state lines to find basic services.
It’s a hard issue. Perhaps the hardest this country faces right now. It’s as complicated as the unique issues that each individual facing homelessness carries with them, and it takes political willpower from across the ideological spectrum to take any substantial steps forward. It also takes communities that are not just willing, but that are invested in the well being of their neighbors.
But these incredible hurdles do not absolve a city or town from trying to help.
Homelessness – what leads to it and what it leads to, playing out in our streets – is beyond complex, but every leader at every level of government must start pulling the threads they have to untangle this web.
This piece was republished from The Salt Lake Tribune.