In Salt Lake City, the number of people who are crowding into the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall is a sign of how homelessness is changing throughout the country. The soup kitchen serves lunch to more people than one would expect. A full two hours before lunch, a line starts to form outside. Hungry humans wait their turn to enter the building. They eat fast and leave as soon as their bellies are full. The homeless eat fast because they know that a hungry someone is waiting for their spot.
The Problem of Homelessness in America |Pioneer Park Coalition
A Shifting Demographic
Even more startling than the number of people showing up for lunch is the shifting demographic of those who are arriving and why they’re coming. According to the dining hall’s staff, the homeless population is younger than it used to be. They are also more likely to have a full-time job and kids. The current homeless population includes people like former car salespeople who have lost their home due to a financial crisis and young pregnant women.
An even bigger shock about what’s happening during lunchtime at St. Vincent’s is that it’s in Utah. A mere four years ago, Utah was a model for a new way to handle homelessness. State officials offered up a solution that seemed almost too simple, which was to give homeless people a home to live in.
Help for the Chronically Homeless
In 2005, Utah began a program that involved giving the chronically homeless apartments to live in. Officials defined “the chronically homeless” as individuals who had been without a place to live for at least a year and suffered from a substance abuse problem, physical disability or mental illness. During the next 10 years, the state constructed housing units and hired more social workers. These efforts resulted in Utah reducing homelessness by an estimated 91 percent.
While the city was able to target and help a small segment of the homeless population, the overall issue worsened. From 2005 to 2015, the number of people seeking shelter at the city’s emergency homes more than doubled, and the numbers continue to rise.
Homeless for the First Time
According to 2018 statistics, most of the unhoused families and adults in the city are homeless for the first time. Glenn Bailey, executive director for Crossroads Urban Center, said, “People thought that if we built a few hundred housing units, we’d be out of the woods forever, but if you don’t change the reasons people become homeless in the first place, you’re just going to have more people on the streets.”
Research shows that to avoid homelessness, many people need higher incomes and lower housing costs. Home prices and rents are rising, so a number of residents are discovering that they just can’t afford to pay for shelter.
How Can We Fix it?
To end homelessness permanently, cities across the country will need to systematically repair the fractures throughout the country’s broken welfare system. From rental help to subsidized childcare and drug treatment, the only way to resolve the issue is to expand government help.