By Stephen Dark, The Guardian, Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 9/22/2017
The streets around Salt Lake City’s downtown emergency shelter have long been home to hundreds of homeless people. In recent weeks, though, nearly all seem to have vanished following a police operation. Local residents are mystified as to where they’ve gone.
The Salt Lake City police chief, Mike Brown, said he had visited parks and the Jordan river, which threads its way to the Great Salt Lake and has homeless camps dotted along its banks, but he hadn’t seen an influx from downtown. Sgt Brandon Shearer has been up in a police helicopter looking for camps and seemed equally perplexed when asked where the people had gone. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a good question.”
Advocates, for their part, fear a humanitarian crisis is brewing.
The unfolding drama is all the more remarkable considering that several years ago, national media reports published claims by Utah that it had “won the war” on homelessness there, at least when it came to housing those who had been outside the longest. Jon Stewart ran a laudatory piece titled “The homeless homed”. But the picture wasn’t quite that simple.
While the country’s most prominent homeless crises are in coastal cities – New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles – the mountain-ringed capital of the Mormon church has also long struggled to house or, in the view of some, has politely ignored its homeless population. The Republican legislature in Utah is fond of the philosophy of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and struggling not-for-profit groups pick up the slack when it comes to homelessness funding.
Rather than ending homelessness, the city in fact housed a subset of its homeless residents, an important step but only an intermediary one in its alleviation efforts. Since then, as rents have risen and the minimum wage has remained stagnant, more and more families have found themselves on the street. A count last year found about 2,200 people in the region in total on any one night.