Gehrke: Are Utah’s $100 million homeless efforts working? Nobody knows, and that’s a problem.

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

A few years ago, Utah got national accolades for practically wiping out chronic homelessness, the crowning success of a noble decade-long crusade.

The stories and, more specifically, the data that they were based on were complete garbage, as any reasonable person strolling downtown Salt Lake City, stepping over used needles or getting hit up for change could tell you.

Sure, over the decade, some people found homes; others ended up on the street. But because the definition of homeless changed over that time, on paper it looked like there was tremendous progress when the reality was that there was a homeless crisis building.

Now, according to a legislative audit, an estimated $100 million is being spent on homeless services in Utah — a tremendous amount that has grown by roughly 50 percent in just the past few years.

“Is that spending making a difference in the lives of these people?”

That query, asked by auditor James Behunin, is the million-dollar question — a hundred times over — and after digging into the numbers, he and his team couldn’t come up with an answer.

“Unfortunately, you will not find any performance data in this report,” Behunin told lawmakers. “We found the data is just not reliable and, for that reason, we did not feel confident in publishing the results we had come up with.”

It’s an alarming finding that, when so many people have committed so much time and millions of dollars, we don’t really have a good grasp on the scope of the problem, what the specific objectives are, and we lack the data that would tell us what steps work when it comes to reaching that goal.

Auditors found, for example, a Rapid Rehousing program in Salt Lake County reported 68 percent of those people who had received subsidized housing ended up back on the street. In reality, three-fourths of those clients never actually got any housing subsidies.

We ran into similar problems earlier this year when my Tribune colleagues and I were trying to figure out how effective the first year of Operation Rio Grande had been. There were tallies for things like the number of arrests, the number of new drug treatment beds and the number of people who had received housing assistance.

But those data points didn’t really add up to providing a useful answer to the broader, more holistic question: Is it working? The answer was more or less a shrug.

Compare that with Heading Home Together, Minnesota’s plan to end homelessness, that has clear goals, identifies timelines for implementation and has clear metrics for how the state will measure success.

It’s disappointing that, given the focus we have seen in recent years on addressing the homeless problem, we don’t have a clearer picture of where we are and where we’re going.

Outgoing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser even suggested withholding state funding until homeless coordinators could produce a strategy and metrics.

The good news is that we may be turning a corner. The audit recommended that the Legislature direct the Statewide Coordinating Committee to create a statewide plan to tackle homelessness, comparable to Minnesota’s blueprint, that it monitor the outcomes and report the results back to the Legislature.

It’s better late than never, as the saying goes, and if it goes as planned, we could start seeing quantifiable results, better services for those experiencing homelessness, and more efficient use of our tax dollars. In that scenario, everybody wins.