Gehrke: This is what Utah’s leaders need to do to turn Operation Rio Grande’s good start into a full-blown success for the state’s homeless

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Since police poured into Pioneer Park a year ago, I have been hopeful that Operation Rio Grande would yield real results in dealing with the state’s homeless problem.

A year in, there are positive signs — reduced crime in the area, more individuals going into drug abuse and mental health treatment, and an uptick in referrals for transitional housing.

But in the next year, we’ll begin to see major structural changes: phasing out the Road Home shelter, opening new resource centers, transitioning into a more dispersed service model and focusing more and more on permanent housing options.

It could be the next 12 months that make or break Operation Rio Grande. If the program is to build on its successes, here are some areas officials will have to address:

More treatment money

One of the most daunting challenges Operation Rio Grande has tried to tackle is the mental health and substance abuse problems that often exacerbate homelessness.

Money has been made available to add 243 residential treatment beds, but the scarce resources mean potential patients are rigorously screened to make sure treatment goes to those most likely to succeed. The rest fend for themselves.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. James Dunnigan, left, Odyssey House outreach specialist Rachel Santizo, Odyssey House CEO Adam Cohen, Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Milcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini cut the ribbon to open a new Odyssey House- an 83 bed treatment facility Thursday Jan. 11 at 3944 S. 400 E. in Millcreek.

The easiest fix would be to bring in more Medicaid funding, either through a federal waiver the state has requested (which appears unlikely) or passing a ballot initiative in November to do a broader expansion of Medicaid.

More money will help, but it won’t solve the problem. As Shawn McMillen, executive director of The First Step House, told my colleague Taylor Anderson, they are having problems finding enough trained counselors to fill the openings they have.

The University of Utah medical school is trying a novel approach, offering basic mental health and substance abuse treatment training to clinicians who can then help alleviate the shortage.

Affordable housing

A permanent solution to homelessness — turns out — involves getting people into homes they can afford.

Cities have proved that they won’t do it on their own, so there are two ways the state can solve the problem: The worst approach is for the state to override local zoning ordinances and set affordable housing mandates. Cities, needless to say, would lose their minds.

A better idea was floated by Rep. Steve Eliason last legislative session. He proposed assessing cities a fee — let’s call it what it is: a tax — based on how much affordable housing they offer. The cities with the fewest affordable opportunities would pay the most.

The money could then be used to offer incentives to cities that accommodate affordable units and the developers who build them.

Some may see this as a subsidy to developers. OK. It’s also an investment toward solving a housing problem that, left unchecked, will only get worse. And that’s not just true for people trying to get off the streets, but for young families and working class Utahns who otherwise could become part of the homeless population we’re trying to reduce.

Fill the shelter gap

The Road Home shelter downtown is slated for closure at the end of next year. At maximum capacity, it can shelter up to 1,062 people.

But the three new homeless resource centers can only accommodate up to 700, creating an obvious shortfall. Groups like the Crossroads Urban Center are clamoring for a solution, and they’re right. Something needs to be done.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Road Home, a shelter in Salt Lake City, Tuesday May 15, 2018.

The good news is, the 400-bed gap is not quite as dire as it seems. For most of the year, the 700 beds in the new resource centers will be able to handle the shelter population. The problem arises when temperatures plummet and shelter is even more critical.

The last thing we want is people freezing to death because poor planning kept them from having a roof over their head.

There is money set aside to deal with the shortfall, but not a clear plan on how to do it. Between now and when the shelter closes, we need a concrete strategy for closing that gap.

Solve the service-resistant problem

Not to diminish the accomplishments of Operation Rio Grande, but they were largely among the low-hanging fruit, focused on those who were going to the shelters and who wanted help.

Now things will get more challenging as programs shift to focus on the so-called service-resistant population.

Last week, the Homeless Coordinating Committee heard the results of a survey conducted by the Department of Workforce Services asking people who are homeless why they have stayed out of the shelters and, consequently, the counseling and service options that go along with that.

One of the key findings was that many would seek shelter if there were single-room housing available, so they don’t have to share a common sleeping area.

It makes sense, and there are actually options that can be implemented quickly and cheaply. For example, Los Angeles has transformed shipping containers into single-unit apartments for its homeless population.

The units offer more privacy, a more dignified setting and a little more stability and security for people.

The committee asked for a study on adding three clusters with 50 single-room units.

The problem, as always seems to be the case, will be finding a community that won’t fight to keep the centers out of their neighborhoods.

Share the responsibility

Right now, Salt Lake City, home to about 200,000, is bearing the burden for addressing a problem that is the responsibility of all 3 million Utahns.

It’s been that way for decades, mainly because the services for the homeless population are concentrated in downtown Salt Lake City.

That needs to change.

Utah County is growing at a rapid rate, yet there’s not an emergency shelter there. The same goes for Davis County.

As we look to dispersing homeless services to break up the concentration around The Road Home, future plans should get beyond the not-in-my-backyard syndrome and include resource centers that aren’t concentrated in Salt Lake County.

All of this may look like a tall order.

But it’s possible and here’s why: For the past year, we’ve seen city, county and state leaders recognizing that homelessness is not simply a city issue but takes a collaborative effort. If that cooperation continues, what was a crisis a year ago may be replaced with lasting solutions a year from now.