Robert Marbut’s backers locally see him as a “smart, smart guy” who has improved the lives of millions of people during a career devoted to addressing homelessness “in a way that seeks to alleviate rather than perpetuate” the community’s struggles, as the coalition put it in a newsletter last month.
“Housing first is the only thing I’ve ever actually seen that really works,” Bailey said.
Marbut first entered the homelessness arena as a volunteer in church youth group and deepened his work on the issue later during a four-year stint on the San Antonio City Council in Texas. After that, he began traveling the country as a consultant in cities looking to tackle homelessness.
In a recent phone interview, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that his views have been misconstrued and are rooted in data and a desire to get people into “transformational” services that will help them move off the streets for good.
That’s why Marbut said he doesn’t believe in providing food and clothing anywhere but in shelters, arguing that those services can enable people and keep them from accessing dedicated case management.
“I’ve never said, ‘Don’t feed ever, ever, ever,’” Marbut said. “What I say is take your feeding services and change the location and put it with mental health and behavioral health and medical and dental and the job training and the education and work together as a collective.”
When it comes to “housing first,” Marbut agrees the approach can work for specific groups, like women and veterans, but doesn’t believe it serves all people experiencing homelessness equally.
“When somebody says, ‘I have one antibiotic and I’m going to treat a heart attack, cancer and pneumonia with one treatment,’ that just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “And housing first truly is the equivalent. I mean, it really is. If you just focus on a roof only and don’t focus on the treatment and recovery that lost you a house in the first place, it’s not even a metaphor. It’s almost exactly the same.”
One of the changes he’ll be pushing for, he said, is more empowerment of local decision-making on addressing their unsheltered populations.
“What you need in Salt Lake City is very different than what L.A. needs,” he said. “And so one of our views that we’re going to try to start talking a lot about is the need to allow local communities to design systems that treat your local, unique needs rather than a one-size, cookie-cutter approach that may or may not be successful.”
‘He knows the players’
That’s similar to a facility he supervised the creation of in San Antonio called Haven for Hope, a 22-acre shelter that provides centralized services to about 1,700 people a day and that state leaders have credited with reducing homelessness.
Others have been critical of some elements of the facility’s approach — particularly the requirement that some people experiencing homelessness sleep in an outdoor courtyard and earn their rights to move inside for higher quality sleeping arrangements and more privacy through good behavior.
Marbut said he’s visited the three new centers multiple times and believes the model can be successful, though he said it’s not as cost-effective as a mall approach.
“It’s going to be more expensive to operate a scattered site, but you can still make it work well” with a good information management and case management system and high levels of coordination between service providers, he said.
Still, Marbut had at least one criticism of the new system: the continued presence of homeless resources, particularly those provided by Catholic Community Services, in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
Matthew Melville, Catholic Community Services’ homeless services director, said he has some “philosophical” disagreements with Marbut when it comes to serving people experiencing homelessness. Not all people want to go into a overnight shelter, he said, but they should still be able to access services at a day center like Weigand.
“Maybe he doesn’t know that part of it; not sure that he would care about that,” Melville said.
A member of the Pioneer Park Coalition board was in Washington, D.C., when Marbut was confirmed last month, and “he assured us that he will provide as much assistance to Utah and the coalition as he can,” the organization wrote in its newsletter.
Scott Howell, a member of the group’s board of directors, told The Tribune that Marbut was a “good reinforcement” during conversations about the new homeless resource center system. And while he praised the direction of the new services, he said the mission “hasn’t been accomplished at all” and believes Marbut could help the state in the future.
“We want to keep the momentum moving and I think it’s really important that we have someone, I mean, what a good thing for us that he knows Utah,” Howell said. “He’s been here, he’s seen it and toured all the new shelters. He knows the players. It’s just nice to have that.”
“Probably he’ll talk a lot about California and what the Trump administration thinks should be done to reduce street homelessness in California,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to have a huge impact on us here in Utah.”