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Salt Lake City calls on county and state to do more to help homeless community

Aug 5, 2021, 6:42 PM

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(Remnants from a homeless camp outside of the Geraldine E. King Women’s Center is pictured after police officers cleared out the area in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Remnants from a homeless camp outside of the Geraldine E. King Women’s Center is pictured after police officers cleared out the area in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — As the state’s population grows, so does the number of homeless people across the Wasatch Front. 

Salt Lake City officials said they need a lot more help to deal with the issue of homelessness, and they want business leaders, county officials and the state to chip in more.

Over the past year, many homeless camps within Salt Lake City have been cleared out.  City leaders said within the past nine months, their outreach services have contacted thousands of people, with 160 of them getting drug addiction treatment.  However, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the homeless population continues to grow and the majority of available beds are inside her city.

More beds will be needed

Mendenhall said, “Our homeless resource centers have been operating near or at capacity, and too many people literally have nowhere to go.”

She said their data shows another 300 beds will be needed to meet the demand before winter.  However, she says those beds need to be spread through Salt Lake County. Mendenhall is calling on the state and county to do whatever they can to make those beds available by the first of December.

“We can’t go another year, let alone another winter, without the space to shelter Utahns who are out on the street, right now,” she said.

Reaching out to community leaders

She’s also calling on business leaders and elected officials to help create 450 permanent housing units. She added that many people make it to the shelters, but not enough find affordable housing.  Without this, Mendenhall said it’s very tricky to enforce the city’s camping policies that would keep homeless camps from popping up.

Mendenhall is also asking the state to increase funding to the city’s Downtown Ambassador program. It reaches out to the homeless population and points them toward getting help.  Plus, she’s proposing more federal funding be used to build permanent housing.

Meanwhile, city officials are trying to find ways to help the homeless people that are already in Salt Lake.  Homeless Policy and Outreach Director Andrew Johnston said this may include the use of empty hotel rooms, which was a big success last year.

“Last winter, it was pretty clear that a large, large percentage of them would immediately go in, if it was available,” Johnston says.

Turning down help

Sadly, the vast majority of people contacted by their outreach efforts decline the services being offered.  Johnston says there are a number of reasons why this happens. 

He said, “There is also a lot of trauma involved in folks’ lives.  We don’t always know the effect that has on their perception of what they want.  Sometimes, it’s hard to be in closed settings. We know that.  Sometimes, it’s hard to be in the right place in the right neighborhood.”

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Salt Lake City calls on county and state to do more to help homeless community