Here’s how the state, service providers plan to address homelessness in Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Christian, who was homeless for nine years before securing housing recently, says he almost lost his feet twice to frostbite, as he passes the time walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

After an audit slammed the state late last year for a lack of meaningful data to gauge the success of efforts to address homelessness, Utah leaders have created a strategic plan they hope will help make a person’s time on the streets “rare, brief and nonrecurring.”

They’ll measure success based on a reduction in a number of factors, including days spent in emergency beds or shelters, the number of people returning to homelessness and the number of individuals experiencing homelessness for the first time. They also want to see an increase in people staying off the streets once placed in housing.

“If you don’t have a good game plan, you may have the best athletes in the world, but you’re going to suck and you’re going to lose,” Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, told service providers during a panel on the report at a Homelessness Summit conference Thursday in Salt Lake City. “This game plan is crucial, but a plan is only as good as it is executed on the field.”

The strategic plan calls for:

  • Reducing by 10% the number of people who become homeless for the first time each year statewide, down from an average of 3,378 in 2017.

  • Shortening by at least 10% the stay in shelters across the state from an average 52 days per person in 2018.

  • Bringing down by 10% the number of people exiting homelessness to permanent supportive housing who return to homelessness from 34% in 2017.

These outcomes can help legislators identify whether state money is actually helping to address homelessness and will be used when determining funding priorities. Programs that fail to make improvements or prove to be ineffective may lose support, according to the report.

“Everything we invest in should be helping us to achieve these goals and do it successfully,” said Jonathan Hardy, who leads the Housing and Community Development Division in the Department of Workforce Services.

This year, the state Homeless Coordinating Committee approved funding for $17 million of the more than $40 million in requests it received.

The report comes amid sweeping changes in homeless services in Salt Lake County, where the majority of the state’s unsheltered population is concentrated. Officials and advocates are preparing to close down The Road Home’s downtown shelter in coming months and are working to relocate homeless individuals to three, smaller resource centers scattered across the Salt Lake Valley.

Speaking at Thursday’s summit, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox recounted several stories about homeless individuals who’ve praised their new quarters. One man who recently moved from the downtown emergency shelter to the new Gail Miller Resource Center at 242 W. Paramount Ave. said it was like “going from a Yugo to a Mercedes” and expressed renewed hope for his future, Cox said.

But the lieutenant governor said the hard work of helping clients exit homelessness is just beginning.

The 54-page strategic plan, completed last month, identifies several challenges, particularly in rural areas. It outlines a deficit of affordable housing, permanent supportive housing and emergency beds; inadequate access to mental health services, substance use disorder treatment and case management; a lack of available transportation; and a need for investment in prevention, diversion and outreach services.

Officials estimate Utah lacks roughly 45,000 dwellings affordable to those earning below-average wages, particularly those at the lowest income levels. Those gaps challenge the housing-first approach homeless service providers have long espoused — including when a person has obtained a government voucher for housing assistance.

“With increased pressure on the housing market, landlords prefer to rent to individuals who can pay a higher rate instead of accepting housing vouchers,” the report notes. “Landlords are also less likely to rent to individuals and families with poor credit, an unfavorable renting history (i.e., eviction), a criminal history or have limited income.”

Cox noted that the Utah Legislature stripped $20 million in funding out of an affordable-housing bill earlier this year but said advocates are committed to landing this aid in future years.

“For any of this to work," he said, “housing is perhaps the most important piece.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at the Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday May 4, 2019.

One in three individuals experiencing homelessness in Utah is “severely” mentally ill and one in four has a substance use disorder. But local homeless coordinating committees have also identified a lack of substance use services and mental health services to help them — a gap that is “particularly pronounced” in rural areas.

Amid these and other challenges, the solutions to homelessness, “are difficult at times,” Hardy acknowledged.

“There’s a lot of human choice,” he said. “There’s a lot of human behavior. There’s a lot of mental illness. There’s a lot of substance abuse. There’s a lot of domestic violence. There’s a lot of things happening in this community we don’t have a lot of control over, and that’s what the strategic plan is all about.”

The plan calls for taking stock of affordable housing through a collaboration with local housing experts by February 2020 and of mental health and substance abuse resources by October 2021. Advocates will then conduct an assessment of the gaps in the system to help determine funding priorities by October 2021.

Partners plan to work with state leaders to reevaluate the Good Landlord Laws to prevent discrimination in housing by 2021 and to coordinate with the existing Section 8 Landlord Incentive Program to establish a similar statewide mitigation fund “to offset costs for high turnover and property damages related to housing formerly homeless individuals” by October 2021.

They also want to divert resources to enhance emergency shelter capacity statewide by October 2021 and for local homeless providers to establish “financially feasible” solutions to transportation needs by October 2020.

A year from now, Hardy said, when the 2020 Homelessness Summit rolls around, “I hope everybody’s talking about results.”