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The Daily Show and the Search for Salt Lake’s Homeless

30 June 2015
The group of individuals lined up each morning on 500 West to get a bed for the night in the shelter. The group of individuals lined up each morning on 500 West to get a bed for the night in the shelter.

If you are a regular watcher of The Daily Show you may have heard that Salt Lake City “has ended homelessness.” The comedian/Daily Show correspondent, Hasan Minhaj, came to Salt Lake City several months ago to do a feature on the state’s initiative to provide housing and services to our chronic homeless. But likely in an effort to produce something that works for television, the show included footage of Minhaj searching for homeless on the streets of Salt Lake who declared that he couldn’t find a single homeless individual. Utah has much to celebrate in terms of their efforts, but the spin that the Daily Show put on the story did not do our homeless (who are still very much present in Salt Lake and throughout the state) any favors.

Several years ago, agencies working with homeless populations in Utah decided to focus resources and research about how to help a specific portion of the population; those considered chronically homeless.

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, “The government defines homelessness as chronic when people have been on the streets for more than a year at a time, or homeless four times in the past three years. They also must have been reliably diagnosed with a major debilitating condition such mental or physical illness, alcoholism or drug dependency.” The article goes on to declare that Utah’s chronic homeless rate has dropped from 1,932 to 178 in 10 years due to the concerted efforts to help this population find housing and other needed resources.

This success is certainly worth celebrating. The Daily Show recently featured Utah’s efforts in a humorous yet poignant light. If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it here. One of the drawbacks of all of the attention being focused on Utah’s success in terms of working to help the chronically homeless, is that the specifics may be cloudy and nuance of how chronic homelessness differs from other types of more acute homelessness may be lost. There could be a tendency on the part of the public to assume our issues with homelessness have been solved because The Daily Show said so.

The fact is, in 2014 chronic homeless made up only 3.9% of Utah’s homeless population. Forty six percent of our homeless are in families, 10% are veterans, and 36% are domestic violence victims. The total number of homeless in Utah in 2014 was approximately 13,621. The state office that conducts the annual homeless count estimates the actual number of people who experience homelessness at some time during the year is actually higher (You can read more about this in our Annual Poverty Report).

Among those agencies and coalitions who are aware how real our problem is here in Utah and particularly in metropolitan areas such as Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo new solutions are being discussed. The Pioneer Park Coalition recently hosted a town hall with a consultant who has been promoting the idea of “homeless campuses” –an idea that has been controversial among some service providers and human rights’ advocates as a campus setup would “wall off” homeless form the greater community.

In a recent Salt Lake City Council meeting, the council voted to hire eight social workers who will collaborate with homeless service providers and the SLPD to help homeless in Salt Lake City find employment and connect them with services available to them.

Perhaps the most significant step that Utah leaders can take almost immediately to help the thousands of Utahns who struggle with homelessness is expand Medicaid. With the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday holding up the segment of the ACA that provides tax subsidies to low-income families purchasing insurance through the Federal exchange, Utah has one less excuse not to move forward with providing health care to low-income Utahns.

Homelessness in Utah is still very real and there is still much work to be done. With changes coming to Salt Lake City government during election season and new efforts on the part of government agencies, nonprofit service providers, and the Salt Lake City Police Department, those who see first-hand the struggles of those living on the streets and in shelters can only hope that much-needed services are provided to those in need and that the safety of those who live and work in the downtown area will be taken into account as well. I wish for the sake of those sleeping on the hard cement with every last belonging clutched to their chest, that solving these problems were as easy as the The Daily Show makes it seem. But it’s just not that simple.

- Barbara Munoz, Policy Analyst