Utah Stories

Mental Health Crisis Causing Many to Become Homeless

Homelessness is a detrimental problem in Utah, and we’ve had many different guests on the podcast discuss this.


Homelessness is a detrimental problem in Utah. On the Utah Stories Podcast, we’ve had many guests that have reflected on the homeless problem, specifically mental health related to homelessness. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Utah, 3,557 people are homeless in Utah on any given night in 2022, and 2,095 of those people are in Salt Lake City and County. Mental illness and its associated problem of drug abuse might be the biggest challenge that U.S. cities will face in the 21st century. How we handle the growing problems of mental illness might be the greatest defining factor for the success or failure of the urban centers in the U.S.

Today, everyone who lives near a major metropolitan area is aware of the mental illness problems. People are out in the streets venting anger, frustration and often showing symptoms of schizophrenia. While the recognition of the problem is common, what is uncommon is finding or funding any adequate solutions.

Mental Illness Problems Specific to Salt Lake City Neighborhoods and Businesses

Bob Danielson, works and lives downtown. He moved to Salt Lake City to start his own business with his brother Tom Danielson. Danielson shared his experience as a downtown resident since 2018 and expressed his initial shock at the rise in crime in the area, particularly around the Gale Miller Resource Center where his munitions business is located. 

Danielson explained that while the community initially embraced the center, inadequate resources and security worsened the situation. He pointed out that the center prohibits individuals from bringing prescription medication, exacerbating mental health issues.

He questioned why people experiencing homelessness are reluctant to seek help at the center, emphasizing that there are horror stories of violence and mental health issues that deter them.

“If it’s not working, you have to change course. You have to pivot,” Danielson said.

Personal and Community Dynamics

In a personal account, Amy Hawkins, a resident and community advocate in the Ballpark neighborhood, shared her experiences with the changing dynamics in her community due to Operation Rio Grande. As the influx of transient individuals increased, so did issues like loitering, drug use, and crime. Amy stressed the importance of accountability and stable housing solutions to create safer resident environments.

“I think we really started to notice something during Operation Rio Grande. That was when the conversation really started off like, whoa, there’s an influx of transient folks coming through the neighborhood that we hadn’t seen before,” Hawkins said. 

Despite the challenges, Hawkins remained committed to her community and advocated for a growth mindset in addressing homelessness. She believed that constructive dialogue and action, as the Pioneer Park Coalition proposed, could lead to positive change and a safer, more equitable living environment for all residents in Utah.

As a resident and the chairperson of the Ballpark Neighborhood Community Council, Hawkins became acutely aware of the neighborhood’s deterioration. The resource center exacerbated some issues and the area saw increased homelessness-related problems, such as loitering, drug use, and crime.

“Some of these crimes involve people experiencing homelessness both as victims and as perpetrators. Sometimes they involve the criminal elements known to circulate among and prey on the vulnerable. If you read the report that you’ll note per capita, the ballpark neighborhood experiences nine times the rate of homicides compared with the whole of Salt Lake City,” Hawkins said. 

Jillian Olmsted from The INN Between has modeled a successful example of a homeless shelter. She detailed that a woman named Patty entered their facility and came out able to have her own apartment. 

Olmsted explained, “Patty entered the facility and a lot of people in the community said good luck to her. She’s difficult; she’ll cause you lots of problems. She got discharged for breaking house rules, returned, and was ready to receive the help we could give her. She just found out last week that she is in remission,” Olmsted said. 

Although The INN Between has received pushback from neighbors, it has died down after their success, Olmsted reflected. 

Nomad Alliance is a non profit that services homeless populations in Utah and Indiana. 

Knesiya Kniaeva, the founder and president, came onto the Utah Stories podcast to talk about the work that her foundation does to help the homeless population.

Kniaeva reflects on how people don’t realize the severity and complexity of the homeless issue. “A lot of the population doesn’t have families. They don’t have a safety net like you and I do, where if something happened to us, I can crash on some friend’s couches or my mom’s house or something if I need to. But I don’t know if you’re aware, but half of the population or half of people that age out of foster care end up becoming homeless within the next two years. And a lot of them become chronically homeless,” Kniaeva said.

Nomad Alliance has many different services including working on passing Utah’s Bill of Homeless Rights which is about the civil and human rights of homeless people, supply drives, employment and workshops, tiny homes, and overnight movie nights. 

Kniaeva is focused on bringing awareness to housed people as well as politicians in Utah in order to make a difference in the fight for unhoused people’s rights. 

“Yes, and that’s what we are really praying for is to change the opinions of both the citizens and the people that live in houses and then also the politicians that represent us, reportedly represent every single one of us, and regardless of how much money we make,” Knieva said. Here are some resources to help with the ever growing homeless problem. The resources are The INN Between, Nomad Alliance, and The Other Side Academy.

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