Working on the challenge of homelessness is a lot like trying to solve a puzzle.
Each piece – whether that’s housing, mental health care or drug treatment programs — helps bring the picture into view. But not every piece is a fit with every person, each of whom has diverse and specific needs.
Flipping the pieces around to help people find the right connection can work. But sometimes you just need to add a new piece to the puzzle; to change the focus of the effort.
http://( https://www.slc.gov/hand/community-commitment-program/)That’s what Salt Lake City’s new Community Commitment Program (CCP) is trying to do. Launched in September, the CCP uses the city’s existing network of outreach, public health and social services agencies to put a new spin on the crisis of homelessness and its related public health concerns.
Over 12 weeks, the program (https://www.slc.gov/hand/community-commitment-program/) uses an intensive approach to outreach and community clean ups in neighborhoods and public spaces impacted by entrenched homeless campsites across the city.
Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team (HEART), part of the Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development, designed the program with input from its community partners — among them the Salt Lake County Health Department, Volunteers of America and the police department’s own homeless outreach team — and coordinates its execution.
“These close partnerships with people working on the ground help inform city government leaders on the challenges that some campers face and have helped us facilitate connections between outreach workers and community services,” said Michelle Hoon, who oversees the HEART team. “This understanding also helps inform the enforcement actions that are necessary in these camping hot spots.”
The CCP takes a three-step approach to meeting it overall goals, including:
- Providing several weeks concentrated outreach from service providers to help as many individuals as possible move into temporary shelter or housing programs;
- Removing trash and biowaste in places where entrenched camping has increased public health risks so that public spaces are safe for everyone;
- And breaking up the pockets of entrenched encampments to reduce the need for enforcement of the city’s camping ordinance, which historically has been source of friction in the community.
It’s a service-first model that’s a departure from past efforts that didn’t necessarily lead with outreach and help.
“Enforcement only approaches don’t end anyone’s housing crisis,” Hoon said. “But a partnership that includes both services and then enforcement ensures safety, cleanliness, and a real shot at getting help for those who need it.”
Enforcement only tactics have also served to push the encampment problem around the city and that’s something “housed and unhoused residents of the city are always telling us they don’t want to see,” Hoon said.
“They want clean and accessible public spaces, and they want to see people get the services that will bring them off the streets for good.”
That can be easier said than done.
Many who fall into homelessness face a constellation of barriers to making change even when they want help, Hoon said. Some of those hurdles are small, like the need to get basic identification documents or, in the age of COVID-19, getting test results for the virus before a program placement.
Others must overcome more considerable challenges. Intergenerational poverty, substance abuse disorders and mental health issues, for example, can create difficulties. So, too, can wait times for available treatment beds or unresolved legal issues.
And some are just hesitant to move indoors.
In a Deseret News story about the CCP in October (https://bit.ly/362h54B ) Luis Lopez said he was uncomfortable living in the close quarters of a shelter setting. He also said he didn’t want to comply with the strict rules at the resource centers that opened in 2019, because they reminded him of stints he spent in jail.
“In order for someone to make a permanent change in their life, they need to be ready,” Hoon said. “Some people may need to go through this kind of intervention a few times before they get to a point where they are ready to accept help.”
Lopez was among those camping near Salt Lake City’s Taufer Park, 680 S. 300 East, when cleanup began on the the final day of CCP’s three-week outreach work. Also that day a resource event doubled down on the services and support homeless services ]agencies provide.
Those include access temporary emergency shelter, pathways to permanent housing and connections to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
Also available at the Taufer Park event were free flu shots from the county health department, medical appointments with the Fourth Street Clinic and a legal clinic with judges, prosecutors and defense attorney on hand to help people resolve outstanding cases.
In addition to its work near Taufer Park, CCP efforts have occurred near St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, in the Ballpark neighborhood, the Granary District, along North Temple, under the I-80 overpass at 700 East and on 500 West between 100 and 400 South.
Annually Salt Lake City invests $15 million in homeless services and resources, including grants to service providers, emergency response, neighborhood cleanliness and staff support for the Homelessness Engagement and Response Team.
So far, the CCP’s expenses have topped more than $200,000. The estimated cost of expanding the program to more locations in 2021 is roughly $750,000. A budget request was recently approved by the Salt Lake City Council, extending neighborhood cleaning services for at least the next year.
Measuring the success of any program can be a tricky thing. Observers may view the numbers as low when compared to the overall problem. HEART and service providers, however, count each placement or treatment connection as a meaningful accomplishment.
In one cycle of the fall CCP, for example, outreach connections were made with more than 170 people, with 120 offers for placement into housing and other resources. Of the 120, only 22 accepted service, while 62 declined. Another 82 people declined to talk with outreach teams about temporary or permanent housing options.
“The good news is that some people are now making their way toward a better, more stable way of life,” Hoon said. “We may not be able to help everyone, but ultimately, we want homelessness to be rare, brief and non-recurring. We’re committed to keep trying.”
For more information about Homeless Services Resources go to: