Curbing Utah’s homelessness problem

by Becky GINOS

SALT LAKE CITY—Substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues are topics that affect us all whether we live in downtown Salt Lake or Davis County. In a pre-legislative conference last week at the Capitol, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes came together with two experts in the field to address the growing problem and try to find solutions.

“This is not a Salt Lake issue, it’s a statewide issue,” said Hughes. “We’re here today to learn and take best practices. There are two sides, the people who perpetuate the problems and those who need treatment. We have to deal with the behavioral health side. There are terribly high barriers at the shelters where people are in fear of violence and even being killed. This doesn’t represent our state. It shows me this is going to be one heck of a journey.”

Hughes said people are bringing drugs into the Road Home making others fearful to go there. “My idea was to get drug sniffing dogs but some of them are intimidating. It would start to feel like a prison,” he said. “So we literally paid to have a Springer Spaniel to be trained as a drug sniffing dog. Ike can smell drugs like he would find a tennis ball. He’ll get all excited but he’s narcing you out. I think he’s going to be well received.”

A lack of affordable healthcare is a major cause of homelessness, said special guest Mary P. Hauser, an expert in addiction medicine, behavioral health, mental health and psychology. “Domestic violence also accounts for 50 percent of homelessness along with mental illness and addiction,” she said. “The opioid problem is very pocketed and Utah has a large pocket. There has to be a commitment from the state and local government. Overall, we must make sure they are treated with dignity. You’re on a good path to take these steps.”

Hauser said in Boston they opened a detox center in the middle of a shelter. “We partnered with the shelter for 10 days,” she said. “There’s situational homelessness where people just need a bridge because they just lost their job, or chronic homelessness. If they don’t go to treatment an outreach worker goes out and finds them to follow up. We also opened up our libraries in every town during the cold mornings to give them a warm place to go.”

The opioid crisis is the largest drug epidemic in the history of the U.S., said Dr. David E. Smith a nationally recognized leader in the treatment of addictive disease who also founded the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinics in 1967. “We’re all looking for common solutions to this drug epidemic,” he said. “There will be 10 overdose deaths by the end of my talk. I don’t care why you do the right thing – just do the right thing.”

When Smith entered the field addiction was a crime. “Doctors were guilty of aiding and abetting a felon for treating addicts,” said Smith. “Don’t look to just government or social services, look to the community but don’t expect applause in the beginning. This is not a popular area. We need to embrace leaders like Speaker Hughes who is willing to stick his head above the hedge and do the right thing.”

Smith said arresting everyone is not the answer. “That’s a very expensive intervention but we do have to work within the criminal justice system. We have to deal with those who commit crimes,” he said. “You’re not responsible for your disease, but you are responsible for your recovery.”

There is a huge homeless population in San Francisco where Smith works. “It’s increasing in ages 20 to 25,” he said. “There is evidence that if we don’t change this curve, it will bankrupt the medical system. A whole generation is being wiped out due to the opioid epidemic.”

Davis County isn’t immune to the issues either. “The biggest challenge we have is that the average citizen doesn’t think we have a homeless problem,” said Commission Chair Jim Smith. “Safe Harbor, Open Doors, the Community Learning Center and many others are working on it. We work closely with Davis Behavioral Health for those homeless who have substance abuse problems and mental illness.”

It’s hard to get an accurate count of the homeless, Smith said, because they don’t know where they are. “We figure in the schools we have as many as 2,000 kids who don’t know where they’ll sleep tonight,” he said. “They don’t have housing stability. It’s a challenge educationally. We don’t have homeless shelters here but we do have housing available throughout the county. We give out temporary hotel vouchers to get people back on their feet.”

With the push to clean up the Rio Grande area downtown, it’s uncertain whether those people are moving into Davis County. “We haven’t been able to confirm that they’re coming here,” he said. “We’ve had reports in North Salt Lake that they’re congregating by the refineries and some reports in Layton. But people think ‘I don’t see anyone standing at the freeway onramp so we must not have a problem.’ That’s not very accurate.”


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