The issue of homelessness affects most communities across the globe. Every day, millions of Americans, including some in Grand County, wander the streets, sleep on benches or in makeshift camps, and struggle to survive without many of life’s basic necessities. Some will even lose their lives. In this series, The Times-Independent examines the issue of homelessness in Moab and Grand County, efforts that are being made to help the local homeless, and how the community can move forward to provide the necessary support for a population that now lives on the periphery of society.
In part 2 of this series, the Times-Independent examined local efforts by organizations and individual community members to help Grand County’s homeless reclaim their lives, highlighting work by Interact Clubhouse, Solutions of Moab, and the First Baptist Church to get people fed, off the streets, and into structured living situations. The final installment in this series explores viable local options for providing support to the homeless community in Grand County and future efforts that could build upon that progress.
Housing in rural communities
One of the major obstacles for a rural community in attaining a proper facility or shelter solution for the homeless community is funding. Although, Grand County at one time received some state funding from the the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund to provide services through the Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, a $900,000 legislative cut to that fund left Grand County out in the cold, according to Lloyd Pendleton, director of the Homeless Task Force through the Utah Department of Community and Culture.
“We compete with education and economic development for legislative funding, and there isn’t much to go around. There is a higher visibility here in [the] Wasatch [Front], and the organizations are already prepared,” Pendleton said. “The housing authority [in Salt Lake City] already understood the Housing First model, and they had the staff and capacity to do it. When we started, we focused on where the capacity was.”
Rural communities often lack an understanding of the sources of funding and how to go after them, Pendleton said, adding that rural communities often fail to complete the proper paperwork for funding avenues and do not have housing authorities with experience in those areas. He said it was not “economically suitable” to copy the Housing First model in a small community.
“Given that the homeless numbers are low, relatively speaking, the thinking is that affordable housing is needed in the Moab area, so we get one of the housing authorities up to speed with tax credit for housing and have some set asides for homeless individuals,” Pendleton said.
The Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah is in the process of building an affordable housing development, Cinema Court, on Mill Creek Drive in Moab. Pendleton said five units were set aside in the Cinema Court development for housing for the mentally ill homeless; however, Fremont Woodward, director of the HASU, said adding set-asides to Cinema Court was “never discussed” and none are incorporated into the project.
“Those units are designed for workforce labor housing, and set asides do not fit into the tax credit model,” Woodward said. “All the investors involved… would have to approve, and we have to set the average median income (AMI) to a level that will allow the facility to run and cover the bills.”
To qualify for housing at Cinema Court, residents must earn a minimum of 25 percent of AMI, a requirement that clearly would disqualify homeless individuals. Woodward said the only housing available for homeless through HASU is the Virginian Apartments on South Main Street in Moab. He said as many as 20 apartments have a 0 percent minimum AMI, which could accommodate the homeless. However, the Virginian is a first-come, first-served complex, and the homeless are put on the waiting list along with all other candidates.
“No preference is given to the homeless. But we are hoping that Cinema Court will take some of the pressure off of the Virginian and open some of those units up,” Woodward said.
Pendleton said a scattered site-housing model is the best solution moving forward in Grand County. In this model, landowners are approached to set up a master lease through the housing authority to help subsidize a possible tenant through rent and bill payments. More than 100 such units exist in the Salt Lake City area, according to Pendleton.
The ‘Winter Boys’
The lack of homeless-specific housing and shelter services in Grand County often leads to a phenomenon Pendleton said is referred to as the “Winter Boys” by some law enforcement officials.
“They are the ones who commit petty crimes to get into jail during the winter, where it’s warm and they can get meals,” Pendleton said. “But there is a more humane and economical way of helping these individuals. What people say in rural areas is ‘we don’t have a homeless problem.’ They need education and understanding about homelessness and ways to help.”
Sara Melnicoff, one of the directors of Solutions of Moab, a volunteer organization that is helping provide work and homes for Grand County’s homeless, agrees that jail time is not a viable solution.
“The resources used to arrest these guys are sucking the air out of the room. There are complicated issues… but they probably need supervised care… instead of jail time,” Melnicoff said. “The best model is to get people in housing, get them job training… substance abuse training… and someone to look after them.”
Bill Thompson, who spent years living homeless in Moab before recently making changes to his situation, agreed. He said jail is “a good place to detox,” but provides no real solution because there are few options available upon release from jail.
“There’s no AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] in jail and no one there offering counseling. When I got out of jail the time before last… I really hit the bottom because… I had nowhere to go but the creek,” Thompson said. “I remembered feeling very much that we were on different sides of the battlefield. We’d become a detriment to a society we didn’t feel a part of.”
Thompson said he and many others in the homeless community feel frustrated that social service agencies should be able to provide help but often don’t have the resources available.
“At this point, the only way you can actually get into a treatment facility in Moab is to be court ordered… but they still don’t have the funding for that. They may not be willing to put resources out to a guy like me over, let’s say, a single mom whose drinking has gotten out of control,” Thompson said. “It took me walking away from here… to get a look at what was going on and realize that society is not the enemy. Their hands are tied. I literally had to go to another state to get well.”
Thompson said he feels lucky to have found avenues of support outside government agencies, but he would like to see help for addicts be more accessible in Grand County.
Melnicoff has repeatedly said she would like to see a multi-use facility for the homeless with shelter, a library, household amenities, and job training and counseling. Until that happens, she said she is still raising money through Emergency Shelter Solutions to find temporary housing for the homeless during the winter months.
Audrey Graham, chairwoman of the Grand County Homeless Coordinating Committee, said a shelter space in Moab is unlikely.
“There is not enough demand for a shelter in Moab,” Graham said. “The reality is it is much cheaper… to put [the homeless] up in a hotel.”
Solutions of Moab is taking another approach. The group has launched the “$5 Challenge” to raise money to provide emergency shelter. Melnicoff said the idea – having individuals ask for a $5 donation from everyone they know – came from Moab City Council member Kirstin Peterson and local realtor Lenore Beeson. At the Moab Arts and Recreation Center’s arts and craft fair in December, the $5 Challenge booth raised $730 in two days, Melnicoff said.
“Zions bank has offered to put the money into an account through Solutions, and they have put up posters in the bank for donations,” Melnicoff said.
Those involved in local efforts to eliminate homelessness in Grand County say they will continue to search for new avenues of funding and new solutions, but until more resources are made available, many individuals will still remain homeless. The Grand County Homeless Coordinating Committee continues to meet, and both Moab Police Chief Mike Navarre and Grand County Sheriff Steve White have said they will work with the committee to help bring more education to the community and their staffs, Melnicoff said.
Moab residents, such as Pete Gross and Daniel Suelo, continue to provide support to the homeless and the community at large by delivering leftover food from the schools and area restaurants to anyone who needs assistance. And the Interact Clubhouse is hoping to build 12 new units to house homeless individuals who are mentally ill.
Pendleton said he hopes the state Legislature will provide more funding so the state Homeless Task Force can offer additional help to rural communities in the coming years.
“The more people can give, the more they get, and the stronger the community becomes. I think there is fear and a lot of myths about homelessness… and a lot of it is not pretty,” said Melnicoff. “But, most people, given the opportunity to have a healthy life, want one and want to be part of a community.”
Editor’s Note: This version corrects the spelling of Fremont Woodward’s first name.
ByBy Charli Engelhorn