Erin Mendenhall understands the value of affordable housing. It’s possible she wouldn’t be here without it. A stable and affordable home gave her grandparents the foundation they needed to raise a family on the middle class wages of a painter and a store manager.
"My family’s continuity of housing opportunities was critical to their access to every other opportunity," the Salt Lake City Councilwoman said at the People’s Summit on Poverty held at the First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on August 25th.
The annual summit, hosted by Crossroads Urban Center and now in its 15th year, addresses issues relating to homelessness and poverty.
Mendenhall’s statement framed much of the discussion from two separate panels Saturday morning. The first focused on unsheltered homelessness in Salt Lake City, while the second discussed domestic violence and abuse as a large factor for homelessness.
Mendenhall believes that governments have the power to relieve poverty, but these initiatives don’t start at the top. They begin with citizens. Mendenhall warned that if Salt Lake citizens don’t insist on affordable housing as the city grows, it won’t happen.
“The challenge,” she explained, “isn't to convince local politicians that funding is needed, but to convince our neighbors."
Panel 1: The Crisis of Unsheltered Homelessness
Stable housing is the first step to rebuilding lives, but Salt Lake City still has a large number of unsheltered homeless citizens. These citizens face a number of challenges to securing housing — including mental health problems, housing affordability and housing needs that don’t fit in well within top-down solutions.
The summit’s first panel examined current issues and potential solutions to the crisis.
Rob Wesemann, who works as a counselor with National Association on Mental Illness, noted that it’s difficult to know someone’s needs simply because the only way of counting the homeless, the Point in Time Count (PIT), is only semi-reliable.
“My best guess is we catch 25 percent of overall homeless. The point is that when we go out, it’s limited by volunteers and respondents,” Wesemann explained. He noted that this is compounded by mental illnesses. Of the 2876 unsheltered people counted in January of 2018, 32 percent had a mental illness. These problems make it difficult for people to retain employment, stay in a shelter, and otherwise function socially.
Wesemann pointed to Utah’s medicaid expansion effort as an example of one solution to the issue.
Most importantly, untreated mental issues have a direct link to incarceration and the “revolving door” of the justice system. "This is predictive, we know it's going to happen,” said Wesemann. “If I'm diagnosed with a mental illness, I'm more likely to be arrested and incarcerated." Those with convictions have a harder time finding work and housing.
Tara Rollins, who leads the Utah Housing Coalition, brought up the second challenge to resolving unsheltered homelessness: money and affordability.
The average fair market rental rate for a two bedroom house in Utah is $924, $1,035 in Salt Lake City. At that rate, a minimum-wage worker in Utah must work 100 hours a week — more in Salt Lake City — to spend 30 percent of their income on housing.
“[Housing] is no longer a shelter,” Rollins said, “but an investment in many cases.” The result is neighborhoods with less cohesion and camaraderie as tenants rotate through and landlords attempt to maximize their returns.
Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for homelessness, pointed out that top down solutions are only helpful if they’re well informed. She’s made it a point to ask those in poverty what they need specifically.
“Sometimes we make decisions for them,” Atkinson said, “sometimes we forget to ask them ‘what do you need?’”
After hosting focus groups of homeless people, Atkinson realized that much of what they needed in a home were basic things we take for granted - a room with a bed and a TV, a common kitchen, bathrooms and community rooms. Small fixes in housing development could resolve these issues and provide the relief for homelessness in Utah.
“If we can't fix the housing problem,” Atkinson said, “we can't fix the homeless problem.”
Panel 2: Domestic Violence and Child Homelessness
The second panel addressed the ramifications of domestic violence on parents and children. Domestic violence exacerbates homelessness, and many of the assistance and solutions available to victims are difficult to establish and maintain.
Jennifer Campbell with the South Valley Services, Jennifer Oxborrow with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, Utah Representative Joel Briscoe and Andrew Johnston from Volunteers of America discussed the ramifications of domestic violence on homelessness and the difficulty of rebuilding a broken home.
Campbell, Executive Director of South Valley Services, gave an emotional report of the odds of domestic violence: that one in three women will experience domestic violence and one in four men will experience it.
While there are a number of funding sources for domestic violence shelters, those sources also come with a variety of conditions.
Individual circumstances, she said, don’t always “fit neatly in a box or meet requirements.”
Because funding sources don’t cover all of the issues and types of abuse, it’s hard for shelters to provide housing to victims. This forces the victim to make hard decisions, such as whether to look for a new home or whether to find a lawyer.
Compounding this are landlords who aren’t “trauma informed,” Campbell says. If a tenant has faced previous evictions due to abuse or issues relating to domestic violence, landlords can find ways around conventional laws to evict them.
And children, the most vulnerable victims of abuse, need increased mental health care and support in the wake of leaving a broken home. It’s difficult for a single parent to find that kind of support while having to keep a roof over their head.
All of these are stacked on barriers that we do not have an infrastructure for a single parent home. Campbell says that poverty solutions must be flexible enough to manage these varied issues.
Empowering these vulnerable groups takes more than just finding them and providing a top-down plan. Because everyone’s situation is different, everyone has different needs to express, and that’s where they need an ear the most.
“Empowerment is messy,” Campbell said, “the hardest part is to listen.”
Jennifer Oxborrow, Executive Director for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, discussed possible solutions and remedies for domestic violence victims. Having few resources to exit dangerous relationships and secure housing creates a “dangerous cocktail.”
The most important component? Getting victims out into new housing and helping them rebuild their lives. Oxborrow cited an Oregon social worker who expanded rapid housing support from a four month limit to a six month limit.
The extra two months not only helped victims find the right place to live, but also gave them more time to build credit and financial independence. Results were positive after 12 months, and after 16 months individuals were living independently with improvements to behavioral health. The plan is currently seeking underwriting from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the time you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” — John Wesley
Those words, emblazoned on a banner behind the speakers and panelists at the summit, framed the fact that the problems of poverty require everyone’s input and coordination.
Briscoe invoked solutions to fighting slavery prior to the civil war, noting that Americans helped dismantle the institution by many different means including political parties, constitutional changes and jury nullification.
“We need every one of you to do everything you can do to solve this problem,” Briscoe said.
Despite the problems each panel presented, solutions do exist. These solutions, ranging from mental health assistance to listening and attending to the needs of the homeless, are the first steps to resolving poverty problems in Utah.
In the past two years, the Salt Lake City government has adopted a housing plan to address the needs of its citizens that includes a $34 million earmark for affordable housing and the creation of 1,450 housing units. The city has also adopted its transportation master plan to connect the city and improve access to affordable housing options. Finally, the council has marked $4 million raised by it’s .05% sales tax increase to fund affordable housing initiatives, such House 20 which will provide permanent housing to 20 citizens most often in need of emergency services.
Affordable housing also needs to be connected, both physically and metaphorically. Many services are spread across Salt Lake City and difficult for those living in shelters to access. It has to bring together services ranging from mental health and employment to grocery stores and community centers.
"We have a system with a bunch of different pieces that have been cobbled together," said Crossroads Associate Director Bill Tibbits.
To address this issue, the City Council has adopted a framework for providing loans and incentives to property developers. It requires developers to demonstrate that — if they receive incentives for affordable units — they develop properties with access to the services those tenants will need, such as career centers or mental health centers.
“That’s a knitting together of housing and services,” Mendenhall said.
Panelists agreed that housing as a fundamental right was a core component for alleviating homelessness and, by extension, poverty.
Everyone goes through difficult times in their lives and experiences periods where housing security isn’t guaranteed.
“We are all the face of affordable housing at some point or several points in our lives,” Mendenhall said, “we need to discontinue this notion that affordable housing is for an ‘other’ population. I think that it won’t harm our communities, it will strengthen our communities.”
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