Homelessness relief plan slashed as Utah lawmakers weigh billions for baseball and hockey

Lawmakers are weighing one-time funding that could add hundreds of new shelter beds.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City’s first legal homeless camp is shown in December 2023. Lawmakers are considering a $55 million spending plan that could pay for the creation of a permanent camp elsewhere in Utah's capital.

While Utah lawmakers weigh hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for a baseball stadium and hockey arena, they already have slashed $115 million in proposed homelessness relief by more than half.

And that cut may go even deeper.

Hanging in the balance: The future of a permanent legal homeless camp and a new shelter that could get hundreds of Utahns off the streets.

Those are investments worthy of lawmakers’ attention, especially as they weigh other pricey endeavors, said Michael Parker, who represents a group of prominent Utahns pushing to reduce homelessness.

“We should be really thoughtful about making large public investments in stadiums in our urban core,” he said, “if we’re not going to address this issue at scale.”

As the final days tick away in the 2024 legislative session, lawmakers are considering a one-time $55 million appropriation to pay for:

• Setting up a camp of mini-shelters in Salt Lake City.

• Building a new shelter that could host 600 to 800 people in a yet-to-be-determined location.

• Funding a single year of operations in both of the above projects along with two others that have already been established in Sandy and South Salt Lake.

“We’ve been informed over the last two winters,” state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said Tuesday, “that we need [those extra beds] to really get everybody off the street.”

If the governor’s initial $115 million request had been approved, it could have paid for setting up the camp, the new shelter, and three years of operations at those projects and in the South Salt Lake and Sandy facilities.

What the funding unlocks

Building the legal camp — proposed near freeway ramps at 700 West and 500 South — and a new traditional shelter would give the system the capacity it needs to avoid scrambling each year to get a plan in place to meet surging winter demand.

“We don’t want to ramp up and ramp down again for winter,” Niederhauser said. “It’s too hard on the clients, and it’s too hard on the neighborhoods that are affected by that.”

The additional beds would also give police the ability to continue a blitz on illegal homeless camps. Salt Lake City police have said enforcement of the city’s ban on camping relies on having shelter space available.

Enforcement stepped up last fall as hundreds of winter overflow beds came on line. Some of the $55 million the Legislature is considering, Niederhauser said, could be used to keep a portion of this year’s winter overflow beds available until a larger facility opens.

If lawmakers don’t approve the full amount, he said, it will come down to prioritizing which projects move forward.

He suspects a new family shelter in South Salt Lake and the transitional housing facility for medically vulnerable Utahns in Sandy would get funding because those projects are already off the ground.

“But after that, is it micro shelters? Is it an additional shelter?” he asked. “We haven’t yet prioritized that.”

Niederhauser said there’s a good chance lawmakers would give his office some one-time funding but stopped short of saying whether he thought they would approve the full amount.

“I’m just thankful for whatever monies they do appropriate to us,” he said, “and I understand there’s challenges to it.”

Influential Utahns urge spending

On Monday, members of the Utah Impact Partnership — a coalition of powerful Utahns aiming to reduce homelessness in the Beehive State — sent legislative leaders a letter urging them to approve the funding request and pass HB298, a bill sponsored by Provo Republican Rep. Tyler Clancy that would overhaul the makeup of the Utah Homelessness Council and create new data reporting requirements.

The letter was signed by Utah Impact Partnership Chair Clark Ivory, treasurer Randy Shumway, member Spencer P. Eccles and Parker, the group’s executive director. Shumway is the co-chair of the Utah Homelessness Council.

“While our combined efforts have shown promise in addressing this issue, the urgency of the situation demands even more assertive action,” the letter states. “We cannot allow lawlessness, squalor and unsanctioned camping, or plague-like drugs to overcome our community’s deep capacity to care.”

The partnership has pledged to chip in another $15 million if lawmakers approve the $55 million request, Parker said. He suspects the Legislature will appropriate a “meaningful amount” but fall short of the full sum.

It is important to have additional beds available, Parker said in an interview, to continue enforcement and get unsheltered Utahns ushered along the path to help. Under the current system, temporary winter shelter beds are due to close in April.

“Those 600 beds will just evaporate,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”