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Reducing Homelessness and Crime in Salt Lake City

A Proposal by Solutions Utah | Updated March 2023

Executive Summary

Salt Lake City is at a crossroads. Measures to curb crime and persistent homeless are ineffective. This not only tarnishes Salt Lake City’s long-standing reputation for cleanliness and attractiveness but is driving businesses out of the city and making our neighborhoods unsafe.

A growing number of mentally ill or drug-addicted people are living unsheltered on our streets. This population, which some describe as the “persistently homeless,” includes those responsible for increases in crime and civil disorder. Assaults, shoplifting, breaking storefront windows, breaking into cars, and stealing bikes have become common. Needles and defecation are present in parks and alleyways. Fires lit to keep warm occur on private property. Some of our parks and riverways are unsafe for walking, biking, or the simple enjoyment of nature. These destructive and dangerous acts in our community are disturbing to residents, business owners, and visitors. Some neighborhoods are no longer safe. Unless this trend is reversed, Solutions Utah foresees the continued trend of businesses and residents moving to other, safer communities.

Neighborhoods, parks, and riverways are no longer safe.

Salt Lake City’s approach to crime and homelessness is failing because it does not address the underlying causes of those experiencing persistent homelessness.  Understandably, our city leaders and our social service provider community have made the provision of housing a priority for those experiencing homelessness. That focus is largely successful for those facing a short-term housing crisis. However, there are many individuals with more significant challenges where housing placements fail. Those individuals may suffer from mental illnesses, substance use disorders, or demonstrate anti-social behavior. They may also face difficulty obtaining employment. Left alone in a subsidized apartment with few incentives for treatment, these individuals are unlikely to overcome the behavioral problems that led to their homelessness.  It is this second group, the persistently homeless, who are the focus of this report.

A significant problem with our city’s current approach is the use of illicit drugs. Drug use and untreated mental illness are common among the unsheltered. It is not surprising that police reports demonstrate that facilities dedicated to assisting people experiencing homelessness attract crime to the neighborhoods in which they are sited.  Businesses proximate to homeless resource centers find used needles on their property and defecation in alleyways. 

Providing housing, without a service-rich intervention, accomplishes little more than transferring people and their problems from a homeless encampment into an apartment complex. While their need for shelter is met, their unhealthy behavior often continues unabated.

Solutions Utah proposes that Salt Lake City adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness, particularly unsheltered homelessness, and the crime and disorder that follows.   

Providing housing, without a service-rich intervention, accomplishes little more than transferring people and their problems from a homeless encampment into an apartment complex.

Solutions Utah proposes the following three-pronged strategy:

  1. Provide people experiencing homelessness – particularly the persistently homeless – with a structured, intensive, and service-rich environment, that may include treatment for mental illnesses and/or substance use disorder, with the goal of changing lives for the better – not simply providing housing.
  2. Return public spaces to their intended uses through the enforcement of the law.  Improve responses to property and personal crimes to increase community safety.  Develop compassionate intervention approaches that seek assistance and the provision of resources and treatment.  And,
  3. Increase measures of accountability and public transparency for service providers.  Require those that receive public monies to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs and that the provision of services does not harm the neighborhoods in which they are sited. 

Strategies

Provide More Opportunities for People Experiencing Homelessness to Receive Intensive Support Services that Address the Root Causes of Homelessness.

  1. Integrate housing with intensive supportive services and treatment.  Housing programs must offer structure and a host of wrap-around services and treatments aimed at addressing unhealthy behaviors and/or mental illnesses.  The majority of publicly funded homelessness assistance programs provide housing with thin and ineffective services, particularly for the persistently homeless.  Efforts should be made to increase the number of alternatives to these limited interventions including integrated settings, such as those provided by Valley Behavioral Health, which combines treatment and housing.  
  2. Provide more immediate treatment options for those suffering from a substance use disorder or mental illness. To truly help those with serious health and behavioral challenges, it is important not to substitute clinical services with housing.   Instead, the availability of receiving centers and treatment programs for those requiring a critical level of care for their drug dependency and mental illness should be expanded.  In addition, individuals with high acuity and an inability to perform activities of daily living, should not be considered “homeless” but be treated for their illnesses in appropriate settings. 
  3. Support programs that aim to change people from the “inside out.” Solutions Utah favors programs that help people transform through connecting with others who understand their needs, share life experiences, and support lives of sobriety, recovery, and continued service. These programs are not for everyone, but their outcomes are often lasting and profound.  Such programs should be incentivized to replicate their facilities and serve more people.
  4. Create sanctioned camps as an alternative to the homeless resource centers. Some people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are reluctant to accept housing, shelter, and services to improve their circumstances.   One way to increase their ability to receive services, reduce exploitation, and improve community safety is by designating sanctioned campsites.  These camps also reduce the number of homeless encampments, reduce the liability of municipalities, and allow for the enforcement of no-camping ordinances.   

Enforce the Law.   

  1. Enforce no camping laws. Salt Lake City should adopt an approach of compassionate intervention where teams of police officers and social workers visit homeless encampments and help the unsheltered find appropriate places to stay, including a sanctioned campsite, and referrals to services and treatment. San Antonio Texas and South Salt Lake City are two communities that have successfully reduced homeless encampments through aggressive enforcement and outreach.  
  2. Enforce laws against using illicit drugs. The use of illicit drugs is a crime that harms those that use drugs and the community.   Enforcing laws against the sale, possession, and use of illicit drugs increases the costs associated with drug use.  Enforcing drug laws protects people experiencing homelessness, the facilities they serve, and the communities in which they are located.  Consequences and enforcement must be imposed on users, especially within homeless resource centers, permanent supportive housing units, and on the streets and encampments where homeless individuals gather. The use of drug-sniffing dogs and random drug tests at facilities will make HRCs safer.
  3. Expand current efforts that focus on “high utilizer” offenders. Law enforcement, prosecutors, the judiciary, and behavioral health agencies must give greater attention to repeat offenders. They must no longer allow those with multiple offenses to return to the streets without consequence or some type of intervention. Adopt a “broken windows” approach to policing.  Allowing minor acts of violence, vandalism (such as breaking windows), intoxication, and defecating in public leads to greater civil disorder on city streets. The “Broken Windows” approach is a proven method to increase community safety.  It requires police to enforce the laws prohibiting these minor infractions as a means of discouraging anti-social behavior and civil disorder that often leads to more serious crime.
  4. Discourage crime by promoting a clean community environment. Crime can be discouraged by maintaining clean streets and sidewalks, removing graffiti, maintaining public spaces, and reducing the number of neglected spaces, including abandoned buildings.     

Improve Accountability. 

  1. Salt Lake City and homeless service providers must take responsibility and better manage their facilities to reduce crime, drug use, and antisocial behavior. Salt Lake City must stop allowing resource centers and permanent supportive housing from being hot spots for crime. Also, service providers must fulfill their commitments to address the impacts their residents have on the surrounding neighborhoods.
  2. Track rates of recidivism for treatment programs and service providers. Identifying the number of clients who receive housing subsidies and return to homelessness once the subsidies are used up is an important measure of accountability. The same is true for individuals who receive treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and remain in recovery and those who relapse back into addiction.  Tracking rates of recidivism is a useful means of measuring the success of programs that serve the homeless.
  3. Hold prosecutors and judges accountable for executing justice. The district attorney’s office and justice courts must not ignore criminal behavior simply because the perpetrator is homeless. Being homeless is not a crime.  However, those committing crimes who are also homeless must be held to the same standard of justice as the housed.  The court administrator should identify and report the number of “high utilizers” that are experiencing homelessness and are repeatedly involved in our criminal justice system and alternative interventions must be explored for these individuals. 
  4. Develop a unified client management system. Increased accountability will require developing the ability to tack client service plans and services provided across multiple service systems, including homeless service providers, mental health agencies, the criminal justice system, and law enforcement.

Collect and analyze street-level data.

There is a great need to document encounters with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness by outreach workers, law enforcement, security and ambassador officers, and program providers. Collecting street-level data on a single, dynamic platform will improve outreach efforts, unify and coordinate the people and agencies working to assist those who need help, and demonstrate the outcomes of outreach and referral efforts. This can be accomplished through hand-held data collection, record-keeping, and on-demand reporting.

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