Homelessness Alternative Weekend plans to raise awareness, students activism

This weekend, March 26 and 27, the Bennion Community Service Center is sponsoring a cooperative effort with the U’s Homelessness Outreach Program in hopes of raising student awareness and promoting involvement in combating homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley.

The Homelessness Alternative Weekend is an immersive experience that places participants in The Road Home homeless shelter in order to provide an accurate and real life perspective of the issues facing the homeless community.

Anne Looser, the director of the outreach program and a U senior, said that the primary goal of the weekend “is to raise awareness about issues of homelessness and to make students realize that these issues actually exist in their community.”

“Going to a food kitchen and serving food for an hour is good, but it doesn’t allow students to get the in-depth knowledge of the issues that really getting involved with a shelter will,” according to Looser.

The alternative weekend is partially taking place in response to the upcoming closure of The Road Home’s overflow homeless shelter in Midvale.

Every November, the overflow shelter opens its doors in order to provide refuge from bitter winter conditions to those without a home.

In early April, the overflow shelter will close its doors until next winter, partially due to insufficient funding, effectively sending its occupants back into the streets without a place to go.

According to Looser, while other homeless shelters continually do their best to accommodate the homeless community, without the aid of an overflow shelter, they are often unable to help everyone.

“I know there are times when [the shelters] are forced to turn people away because they just don’t have enough beds,” Looser said.

What this inability to provide shelter does to the homeless community, Looser said, is effectively criminalize them for circumstances over which they often have no control.

“If a homeless individual is caught camping in places like Pioneer Park, they can get a ticket that they are unable to pay because it is illegal to camp in public areas,” Looser said.

There are many common misconceptions that pertain to the homeless community, the most apparent and, according to Looser, inaccurate of which is that homeless people are lazy and do not actively seek out jobs.

According to Looser, 53 percent of the people living in shelters are employed and those who are not are constantly trying to find work.

“I’ve never met a homeless person who said, ‘Give me a check, I don’t want to work,” Looser said. “The most common question I hear is, ‘How can I get a job?'”

Looser said her organization has met with Mayor Rocky Anderson and the Salt Lake City chief of police to discuss possible means of remedying the escalating problem of homelessness, and that although no concrete solutions have been found yet, so far the city officials have been receptive.

“When we approached the city, they said they were working on something, but there were no hard or fast solutions found,” Looser said. “[The officials] were definitely open to our input, though.”

One of the possible solutions discussed was a “no bed, no ticket” policy, which would make it so that homeless people cannot be ticketed by city police if there are not enough beds to accommodate them in shelters.

However, Looser said, even a solution like the “no beds, no tickets” policy is only short term.

The most realistic long term solution would be one that works to raise working wages to subsistence, living levels.

Bill Tibbitts, coordinator of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee and an activist at the Crossroads Urban Center, said that 60 percent of jobs in Utah do not provide enough wage to raise a family of four above the poverty line.

“In the last 30 years, the value of the minimum wage has decreased by about 30 percent,” Tibbitts said. “In the past, an individual working 30 hours per week could raise a family of four above the poverty line. That is no longer the case.”

Tibbitts said that the minimum wage of $5.15 is insufficient.

He said that a more realistic living wage would be closer to $8.85.

Tibbitts said that other states have been able to force local companies to raise their wages to acceptable living standards by requiring that all companies who contract through local governments and subdivisions provide adequate wages or their workers.

However, this solution does not apply to Utah because in 2001, the state Legislature passed a bill prohibiting governmental subdivisions from requiring wage increases.

In an attempt to circumnavigate this decision, city officials have drafted an ordinance that acts as an incentive program benefiting companies that provide health insurance and living wages to their employees.

Looser said a variety of ways exist that students can get involved and help combat homelessness in Salt Lake City.

“There are thousands of things students can do to get involved,” she said.

“Students can vote for politicians who are trying to fight poverty, or they can join an anti-hunger action committee [among other options].”

Students interested in participating in the Homelessness Alternative Weekend can contact Anne Looser at [email protected] or the Bennion Center at www.bennioncenter.org or by phone at 581-4811.

For more information about The Road Home shelter, students can visit www.theroadhome.org.

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