May 05, 2019

OPINION: Give people the dignity of work to get out of homelessness

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By Nigel Swaby

In Salt Lake City, there are many resources for people experiencing homelessness. To find them all in one place, the Weigand Homeless Resource Center of Catholic Community Services hosts space for representatives from different service providers.

Many people know the Weigand Center as a place to get a free hot meal twice a day but it also houses all the resources needed for a disadvantaged person to get back on their feet. Starting with showers, lockers and laundry facilities, this downtown facility next to the Road Home at 437 W. 200 South also provides a “homeless court” every other Friday, job fairs, representatives from the Department of Workforce Services and help finding housing assistance. And if an applicant lacks clothes suitable for a job interview, a side room is filled with clean clothing that can be borrowed.

Later this year, when the Road Home closes, Catholic Community Services will remain open and continue to offer services. The group also won the bid to operate the mixed-gender resource center on Paramount Avenue. According to Matthew Melville, Director of Homeless Services for the center, the organization is planning to start a culinary training program to help provide better paying jobs for those exiting homelessness.

About seven blocks away from the Weigand Center is Maud’s Cafe, at 422 W. 900 South. Operated by the nearby Volunteers of America, Maud’s provides employment training programs for homeless youth. VOA has won the contract to operate the women’s resource center on Hope Ave.

On 622 W. 100 South, another food-related employer provides job opportunities for women leaving homelessness. The Green Team Farm, part of Wasatch Community Gardens, provides employment and a 10-month agriculture course.

Over at Workforce Services on 42 S. 200 East, a contracting business owner is meeting with staff to see if he can hire some workers for his construction company. He doesn’t care if they may have a criminal past. He’ll even provide them tools and training.

For most people experiencing homelessness, programs like these work. They provide the push and opportunity for those actively seeking help. However, those who are chronically homeless, don’t always benefit from such programs. One former addict I spoke to said people over their head in drug addiction don’t look for work or services. Others suffering from mental illness lack resources like transportation or sometimes the persistence necessary to see success.

Next door at the Road Home on 210 S. Rio Grande, only two case managers serve the nearly 1,000 people who obtain shelter each night. According to Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, about 16 percent of the residents use about 60 percent of the beds. He suspects this ratio is similar in cities throughout the nation.

Some folks experiencing homelessness or joblessness do so because of physical limitations. For them, shelters provide relief while they navigate getting disability or Social Security benefits, which can take months or years to be awarded. “Lenny” developed an infection that claimed part of his leg. His mother died and her home was foreclosed on. He also lost his job due to his illness. After the amputation, Lenny was discharged from the hospital with nowhere to go. He spent 14 years on the streets until very recently when someone helped him get disability and a temporary shelter. Others simply fall through the cracks. “G” explained to housing outreach volunteers one freezing January morning she has a housing voucher, but can’t find a place to rent because of her poor credit. Some of those in the “system” get frustrated with road blocks and simply withdraw completely when a case manager could help overcome obstacles.

There are only two ways in to the Other Side Academy, an employment-based drug treatment facility just east of downtown; write a letter from behind bars or sit on the bench. Inside their back door is a wooden bench. Buzzing around it are staff and other Academy students. For someone who has hit rock bottom with their drug use, this bench may be their only way to recovery without incarceration. Some spend eight hours sitting on the hard wooden bench contemplating their future. The average student has been arrested 25 times and spent several years in prison. The Academy offers counseling and employment through its moving company and shelter. Students work their way up in the  two-year minimum  program.Upon completion, graduates can stay on as counselors to others or walk away with the savings they’ve earned and start a new life.

As the new homeless resource centers open later this year, let’s understand as a community a holistic approach is needed to address people facing homelessness. A lot of great programs and organizations are in place. To fully benefit from the sizable investment made during Operation Rio Grande, we need to provide more people, not more programs, to best help our most vulnerable members of society.