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'Being homeless is not a crime': Salt Lake officials discuss shift in response to homelessness

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill discusses a research trip to Florida and future plans in addressing homelessness on Wednesday, as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, left, and Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Erin Litvack listen.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill discusses a research trip to Florida and future plans in addressing homelessness on Wednesday, as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, left, and Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Erin Litvack listen. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — While Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall joked she's "never looked to Florida for political answers," a recent trip by elected officials has helped outline ways to address the homeless population.

State and county leaders visited Miami-Dade County to observe a program used to intervene and resolve the "high utilizers" of the homeless population. High utilizers or high-need unsheltered individuals are defined as those who often intersect between the criminal justice system and behavioral health system.

"What you're seeing is a drilling down into the acute needs of specific parts of the population who experience homelessness in Salt Lake County and actually, for the first time, a focus across levels of government and service provision on the hardest to reach and the hardest to serve part of the population," Mendenhall said.

"When it comes down to it, it really isn't a matter of politics. This is about human beings with complex needs, who have histories of need that have been unmet or exacerbated by the systems that exist. And it's also about a waste of taxpayer dollars, as the systems continue to cycle people through without resolving much of anything," she added.

While Salt Lake County has worked to address the intersection of behavioral health systems and the criminal justice system, officials agreed that the system in place is still much too "siloed."

What is a 'siloed system?'

Salt Lake County has several touchpoints between its criminal justice system and behavioral health system, in an attempt to reduce the criminalization of the homeless population. Recent efforts have included hiring additional social workers to the Salt Lake City Police Department, criminal justice diversion programs and partnerships in addressing mental health.

Despite these policies and programs, the lack of collaboration between stakeholders can create gaps within the system.

"We have our criminal justice system. We have our homelessness system. We have our behavioral health system. We have our law enforcement systems, and one of the best opportunities that came out of Miami is really getting to understand from everyone's perspective what the issues are, what the gaps are," said Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Erin Litvack.

Often law enforcement or criminal justice systems are utilized when it comes to the "high risk" or "high need" homeless population.

"Getting out of our silos, recognizing the interdependent mess that we have with each other and recognizing that as a public prosecutor, the jail and the prosecution is not a solution to this issue. Mental health is a public health issue. Transitional housing and deeply affordable housing are political solutions that cannot be substituted by criminal prosecution alone," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

"We have looked to the criminal justice system to be our crisis managers and what we have learned is that we will never be able to arrest our way out of this situation," he added.

Changing the system

While officials were unanimous in their agreement that the current system does not work, concrete plans to change the system were not announced during Wednesday's meeting. Mendenhall announced the city's collaboration with a group that intends to do a "system mapping" of the resources that currently exist. The map will help provide insights regarding gaps and opportunities for merging responses between systems.

"We will analyze the system as it exists today, where those silos are, simply where the system was never even designed to serve these needs in this population," Mendenhall explained.

The model that officials hope to build represents a paradigm shift from a criminal justice model to a social service model, a shift officials called "long overdue."

"The goal here is that nobody who has a public health issue or personal health issue or mental health issues, or out of whatever circumstances finds themselves homeless, looks to our criminal justice system as the answer," said Gill. "We cannot afford economically or on a human level to continue to look to our criminal justice system to try to ... address public policy deficit."

The proposed change and collaboration were welcomed by law enforcement officials at the meeting.

"Mental health issues are not a crime, being homeless is not a crime. Yet what do we do when there are issues and concerns in our community?" asked Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown. "We find over and over and over it's just a revolving door where they come back to the street. It's not the help they need."

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Utah homelessnessUtahSalt Lake CountyPolice & Courts
Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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