SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Utahns are known for their kind hearts and desire to help or jump in and volunteer. It’s almost a need built into our DNA to help make life better for everyone around us. However, when it comes to helping people experiencing homelessness, experts say good intentions can backfire.
As we wrap up ABC4’s three-part digital series on homelessness in Utah, our experts emphasized not only helping, but helping in a way that will make a difference.
And while there are many ways Utahns can help, it is important to be aware of situations surrounding homelessness. There’s a bigger picture that can help you decide how to help.
First, being homeless is a complex situation.
Experts say the first impulse many have when they see someone who needs help is to give them money. However, giving money directly may be the worst choice.
Cash, if it is used for food, is only a temporary fix and solves only the most immediate needs, it won’t help tomorrow. While it may feel good to give money, the action alone does nothing to curb the cycle of poverty.
Thinking about how the person wound up in the situation and what is needed to get them back on their feet is not something everyone considers when they see people who need help.
Even though the answers are all different, one thing to realize is that poverty and lack of income are the biggest causes of homelessness in the United States.
“It’s an economic problem for some people, they’ve lost their job because of COVID, so they can’t pay their bills they can’t pay their rent, they end up evicted,” says Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah.
A person who is homeless is experiencing extreme poverty. This could be from losing a job, not being able to make enough at a job, divorce, there are many things that could have happened. Furthermore, the individual could be suffering from the added complexity of addiction or mental health issues.
It is tough when a person fights these things or a combination of all of them. If addiction and mental health issues complicate the situation, the person on the streets might not know where to turn for help.
According to the Salt Lake Police Department, “The homeless are already vulnerable targets to crime, think about what could happen when you give cash directly, you could be making the person you are trying to help a target.”
Nicholas Rupp from Salt Lake County health gives this advice to those who wish to help, “Donate or volunteer via existing organizations – don’t serve people experiencing homelessness on your own.”
There are several agencies that try to help the homeless. These organizations have an infrastructure and a path to help people rise out of homelessness, to get to the resources they need to help them re-establish foundations in their life and get out of the situation they are in.
Bray says, “It’s our mission to provide a community-supported bridge, to help vulnerable individuals move towards health and self-reliance.
“All of our 300 staff and multiple programs help us serve 9,000 people a year.”
Salt Lake County Health explains, “With the holiday charitable giving season upon us, the Salt Lake County Health Department encourages good Samaritans to utilize existing social service agencies rather than conduct direct outreach on their own, especially when it comes to serving food to the homeless.”
The organizations’ infrastructure has been created to help get people back to productive lives, plus now all of the resource center organizations coordinate help together.
“Several excellent organizations in our community provide meals to people in need. Together, these organizations already serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner nearly every day of the year, and they rely on donations and volunteers to do so,” says Salt Lake County’s Nick Rupp.
Bray says, “There are four main improvements in the new resource center system. The coordinated intake, food on-site, breakfast lunch and dinner every facility is serving food, they can stay in all day they are not asked to leave, they can come and go, go to appointments, and another important piece is an increase in case management, and other important services, that support them toward their goals. There are a lot more services in one location.”
These services are provided year-round and that’s the final thing to remember. Homelessness is an ongoing problem, it was happening before COVID and will continue after, meaning people can choose to help all year round.
Salt Lake PD says, “There are service providers, and leaving it up to the service providers is the best choice there is to help out there, or you may be contributing to the problem. more than you realize.”
“Providing assistance through these existing programs is the best way to give back to your community. These organizations have a structure in place to utilize your time, goods, and money in the safest and most efficient way possible,” says Rupp.
“I think the need to give is year-round! It’s more pronounced in the cold, winter months (which are really November through February or March), but the organizations assisting our most vulnerable—our unsheltered—need donations and assistance throughout the year.”
And if helping financially may not be an option, there’s always advocacy. Being proactive in advocacy can help in ways you would not expect.
Jean Hill, Co-Chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness says, “Advocacy work for policy change that will keep people from becoming homeless in the first place, and to help them move out of homelessness more quickly.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also spoke with ABC4, expounding on the spirit of Utahns.
“One of the greatest things about Salt Lake City is our neighbor’s hearts – people here want to be of service and help one another,” Mayor Mendenhall says. “But sometimes giving directly to individuals can have unintended consequences, from less than sanitary living conditions to making it less likely that individuals will take the offer of official services and eventually be placed into housing.
“The best place to start when it comes to our unsheltered neighbors is contacting the providers who run the Homeless Resource Centers on their needs in providing direct service and support. There’s always a way to volunteer time or donate to each of them.”
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