Increased winter shelter beds, stepped-up enforcement on camping ban are working, business leaders say

Downtown Salt Lake businesses urged the Legislature to fund Gov. Cox’s proposed budget of $193 million for homeless services.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A wraps himself in a blanket to stay warm on 400 West, on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

On Tuesday morning, many of the shelters across Salt Lake County were full. That’s according to the dashboard maintained by the Department of Workforce Services.

At the same time, downtown Salt Lake City business leaders gathered to ask the Legislature to support Gov. Cox’s budget request to beef up the state’s homeless services. Cox’s proposal called for $128 million for emergency shelters, $10 million for the state’s housing preservation fund, $30 million for deeply affordable housing and $10.6 million for “HOME” Courts judicial diversion, which Cox described as “a less restrictive civil option for individuals with mental illness who do not meet the standard for civil commitment or criminal diversion courts.”

He also recommended $8 million for behavioral health and $7 million for additional services.

“Over the past six months Salt Lake City has experienced marked improvements in street safety and the reduction of street camping,” said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. He attributed the improvement to the 600 temporary winter shelter beds and increased enforcement of no camping laws.

Linda Wardell, general manager of City Creek Center, said new residential towers and businesses popping up downtown have also brought new challenges. “While we used to know many of the people who were unsheltered who live in our neighborhood,” Wardell said, “today, the streets are flooded with many people we have never seen previously.”

Wardell urged the Utah Legislature to step up. “We need your support to continue the momentum that has been achieved in recent months.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A tent shelters a person from the snow, on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

“We are encouraged by the recent infusion of resources and support that have been added in the past few months,” said Marlise Fisher, regional president of WaFd Bank, “while this is a great beginning, we have a long way to go and we can’t stop now.”

The Legislature only has eight business days left to pass the budget. Miller told The Tribune that the business community wanted to stress that continued support is needed for Utah’s homeless population and “we need that ongoing funding, so that solution remains in place, so that the good progress that we’ve made isn’t lost.”

Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator, noted that Utah now has the 8th most expensive housing market in the country. While the extra winter beds have helped, they will close in the spring.

“At its very core,” he said, “homelessness is a housing issue.”