Despite homelessness spiking, Utah officials say they are moving in the right direction

They also disputed the role of evictions and landlord tenant law in the crisis.

Homelessness is spiking but Utah officials say the state is making good progress on the issue.

There were 3,687 unhoused people — whether sheltered or unsheltered — in Utah in 2023, based on the annual point-in-time count. That’s a 31.8% increase from the 2019 count and represents 11 unhoused Utahns per 10,000 residents.

About 1,000 people were chronically unhoused in 2023, according to federal data, more than double the number in 2019.

Despite those grim statistics, officials posited they were headed in the right direction during a panel exploring “Utah’s next steps for homeless services” held Wednesday morning.

State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, State Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr. and Carol Hollowell, director of the Switchpoint Community Resource Center, spoke on the panel.

“We have to deal with people’s traumas, treatment of mental illness and substance abuse,” Niederhauser said, “and get people back into housing. That’s our objective. They’re very difficult but I think we are on a path to get there.”

To solve homelessness, the state, city governments and philanthropists need to coordinate, Niederhauser said.

Back in December 2023, the Governor and State Homelessness Office unveiled a comprehensive plan and budget to address homelessness, but the Legislature only provided about a third of the funding.

“How do we anticipate implementing a plan when we’re providing somewhere between a half to a third of the funding that we know is needed?” asked Søren Simonsen, the executive director of the Jordan River Commission.

“Even what the state’s doing now has been historic and unprecedented,” Cullimore said. “I think getting this ongoing funding from the state is more than a foot in the door, this is a big step in the right direction.”

The panelists stressed the need for more deeply affordable housing. Salt Lake City alone is short of more than 5,000 deeply affordable homes for those making 30% or less of the area median income. Seniors on fixed incomes, a growing part of Utah’s homelessness population, were especially in need of deeply affordable units, said Hollowell.

“[Seniors are] getting priced out, and they have nowhere to go,” Hollowell said, “they’re not going to get a second job.”

Providing more mental health services and deeply affordable housing could help, Cullimore said. “I know Gov. Cox’s big push is for 35,000 starter homes, which is fantastic, and we need to do that,” Cullimore said, “But I think it’s important to note that the more apartments we have, the more townhomes and everything, every type of product helps with housing affordability, and so we need to continue with that.”

Some panelists also claimed that evictions, which shot up past pre-pandemic levels last year, were not driving homelessness.

“I would say that at a state level, Utah is not the most tenant-friendly state, but we’re also not the most landlord-friendly state,” said Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr., whose father’s law firm claims it files the most evictions and collections cases in the state. Cullimore Jr. himself stepped away from the firm in 2023.

Cullimore also noted that Utah’s eviction rates are lower than other nearby states.

“If someone is facing eviction, something’s wrong,” Niederhauser said. “It’s not the core issue. Eviction is a symptom. It’s not the core issue. We have got to get to the core issue with that person. Is it income instability? Is it maybe a substance abuse issue?”

At least one audience member did not agree.

“Eviction is one of the major causes of homelessness,” said Sara Bybee, a University of Utah researcher who was not speaking on behalf of the institution. “So how can I be sure that a legislator who’s part of this actually has the best interest of people at heart?”

Kirk Cullimore Sr.’s law firm website claims that he “wrote and work[ed] with the legislature on almost all laws which currently exist relating to landlords and residential rentals.”

Cullimore Jr. said while his father had been involved in his own role as a legislator he had only sponsored bills that had the “consensus from the housing advocates.”

The panel agreed that the problem — and the solutions — are complicated.

“Homelessness is the catch-all for all the problems in society, and how do we deal with it?” Niederhauser said. “It’s very difficult.”

Editor’s note, June 13, 10:32 a.m.: This story was updated to make clear that Sara Bybee was speaking as a private citizen.