The current Mayor of Salt Lake City commissioned a series of public workshops to discuss options and plans for addressing the needs of those effected by homelessness, and I was able to attend the workshop on June 14th of 2016. What follows will be my experience, reflections, and general observations on the event.
I think overall, the policy makers were focused on the well-being of the population being served. This was made apparent when a representative spoke about various concerns. He said he understood that homeless people are unique, and that we should pay attention to the uniqueness, rather than seeing the homeless as all the same. He used an analogy to drive this point home: he works for the government, but his place is unique within that framework and not like other positions, and he wouldn’t like to be treated as though he was the same as all other government employees. He said that the public workshop was for the population themselves, that the policy makers didn’t want to infringe on what was desired and needed by making decisions without input and feedback. The goal, then, was diplomacy and democracy, as well as conversation. I have been following policy decisions on behalf of the non-profit The Legacy Initiative for over a year now, and in my previous writings, I have stressed the importance of asking the homeless themselves what is needed, and not making unilateral decisions. I have stressed this because the policy decisions will affect the homeless, and if their voice isn’t heard, we haven’t accomplished much. However, it was made clear that this was part of the new initiative, which was refreshing, and gave me inspiration and hope.
We were split up into tables, where we diplomatically discussed the issues at hand. We were asked a series of questions and allowed to answer in depth. I was asked if the resources are in a good place. I replied that I have reason to think that they are not, because there has been clashing with the population we serve and the general public, leading to hostility, distrust, apathy, and disconnection: There has been little community in my observation. However, I understood my answer wasn’t definitive, such as when others commented that everything was located in a good place. Perhaps the social issues are pronounced, but in differing and unexpected ways?
I was also asked if a single location for homeless services was better. I replied that I think having the locations separate is good because the population is already dispersed, but I acknowledged close proximity is good because all the necessary resources are in one place. Overall, I have mixed feelings on how the facilities should be structured and located, though in the past I have acknowledged that having them dispersed would be helpful because it would take the strain off the community. This point was reinforced when a participant in the discussion described the downtown resources as “The Block,” basically a place that feels like a jail, because it’s so clustered and is therefore very stressful and intimidating.
Generally, we were asked where the facilities should be. In the past, when I answered questions of this nature in various meetings and interactions, I have said that the homeless deserve a community: They deserve what any citizen would like to have. How I responded today was much informed by this belief, and so I said that having a place in a good neighborhood, with parks, near public transit, and in an area with low crime, would be healthy for the population being served. My major point was that making concessions like this would improve the quality of life for the homeless. This was my important point, of making life as beautiful as it could possibly be, given the circumstances.
I mention the next point only because it came up almost every other minute: Drugs are still a major problem downtown. I don’t have much to comment on this, except that I hope an effective strategy can be implemented soon so there are no more victims.
A participant at the table mentioned that there should be school activities for kids. This was in reply to the question of what else would make this endeavor successful? I replied that I agreed with this point, and that I felt that there needed to be ways for the community to connect with the homeless, and vice versa. This could be implemented through various public activities, volunteering opportunities, and general opportunities for engagement. I commented off hand that it would be good for Boy Scouts, for instance, just to get the creative thinking rolling. I commented that privacy is still important, but that I emphasized community too.
I also emphasized education and compassionate leadership. My first thought when I went to the workshop was how much I continually think education is a potential way out of poverty, and that we must stress that. I also reiterated the idea of compassionate leadership. I implied that this would be all across the board, including social workers, police officers, and service providers. Compassion, I still believe, is key to getting this to work.
Overall, it was a successful conversation. It felt diplomatic and non-judgmental. I was happy that the participants, who suffered from some form of homelessness it seemed, were given the time of day, as were others in the facility. I know that talking about homelessness is a complicated issue, and can get messy quickly, but we all seemed determined to work through it and make the conversation intelligible and more importantly, productive, for everyone. As someone who has been fighting for the homeless for years, today was a refreshing day, because I was shown first hand that we are making progress. It’s slow progress, but changes in leadership have seemingly made a difference, and the homeless are being given more space in the public forum, which makes me happy.
I ran into one of my homeless friends, and he totally agreed with this assessment, in fact made this assessment himself. Indeed, it seems that this population is really being heard and listened to now. This doesn’t mean we’ve solved homelessness in Utah and have solved the housing crisis, but we’ve made steps forward, and that must be acknowledged, even for someone like me who knows things can get overly political fast.
Indeed, it was actually a really good experience for me. It was very down-to-earth, very inclusive, inclusion of which I have emphasized since I’ve been writing about these topics. It was a good experience for me personally because I have seen the growth over time and I have seen the changes. I believe my friend that he is being heard when he says he’s being heard, for instance. I believe that we are moving in a good direction, and though there is still much work to be done, we are on the way towards something good. Indeed, the needs of the homeless are always changing, but what I sensed in the room was people who wanted to make change, people who were ready for change, and people who were willing to make change. This is crucial to the process.
And in all honesty, I can rally behind it, provided the integrity stays in place and we continually push forward with the best interests of others at our core.