By Jon Pierpont, Department of Workforce Services Executive Director
We are approaching a historic event in the Salt Lake Valley — one that has taken years of planning and preparation. Over the next several months, a vast array of partners will be implementing a new system for delivering services to people experiencing homelessness. After more than 30 years in operation, the downtown community shelter will close in the fall, and we’ll welcome a better, modernized model for assisting those experiencing homelessness as we open three new homeless resource centers.
This is no easy task. Selecting the three locations was a difficult and controversial process. We recognize that providing shelter for people experiencing homelessness is essential to who we are as a community, and yet, no one really wants a homeless resource center in their neighborhood. Now the construction of two resource centers is nearly complete in Salt Lake City, as well as a third resource center in South Salt Lake, and it’s time to move forward as a united community.
Major challenges continue to lie ahead for the partners in this effort. Ensuring needed funding is available, completing construction on time, training new resource center staff, implementing a new, seamless coordinated intake process and getting people who need shelter to come to a new location they’re not familiar with and work with new staff and new programs — these are all very real challenges we’ll face in the coming months.
Meeting these challenges and creating success will take the effort and dedication of everyone involved, from state agencies to service providers. Homelessness is complex. The specific causes are different for each individual, and the solutions require a multifaceted approach that includes emergency shelter, medical care, mental health treatment, drug treatment, public safety, employment support and affordable housing. With so many pieces that must fit together, it’s clear that we need everyone’s help.
As the homeless resource centers open this summer, we also reach the conclusion of Operation Rio Grande, the three-phase effort launched in 2017 to restore public safety and improve the environment for those seeking homeless services in Salt Lake City. That monumental effort required the collaboration of a broad range of public agencies, nonprofit organizations and political leaders. Since the beginning of that cross-discipline, cross-jurisdictional effort, Part I crimes in the area decreased by more than 40 percent; 275 treatment beds have been added, providing treatment for hundreds of people in need of mental health and drug treatment; 204 homeless individuals became employed through the Dignity of Work program; and nearly 500 have been housed.
The success of Operation Rio Grande set the stage for the homeless resource center transition to be successful. It also provided a template for how government, nonprofit and private entities must collaborate to create that success. For example, multiple government agencies came together to establish a Safe Space on Rio Grande Street to help people access homeless services safely. Government, service providers and private donors collaborated to create the sober living program that has now served more than 450 people and freed up treatment beds for even more people seeking treatment. Now, preparing for the transition to resource centers, a wide range of partners are working together to establish new intake processes, develop programs, train staff and make a holistic vision of homeless service delivery a reality.
I’m asking our partners who are invested in positive outcomes for homeless Utahns to strengthen your commitment to be a part of the solution. We need to think outside the box, utilize everyone’s strengths and be willing to take on challenges that are outside of our comfort zone.
There is no finish line in our efforts to reduce homelessness; however, through the hard work and cooperation of organizations and individuals, we can accomplish something historic.