Utah needs to focus on homeless shelter capacity, feds say

Robert Marbut, the federal government’s top homelessness official, praised Utah’s “amazing” improvement in addressing homelessness on Wednesday — but said there are still several obstacles the state needs to address.

“I think you’re probably about 85% of the way there but you’ve still got 15% more to go,” he said.

Some of those challenges center around current processes — like a lack of data collection and central leadership — while others are approaching, like the potential for an impending capacity shortage when the temporary emergency overflow shelter that opened last month in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood closes in April.

Marbut, speaking Wednesday to a group of state and local leaders and service providers who serve on the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, said data shows an influx of people coming into the Salt Lake City area from out of town each year between March and April as the weather grows warmer.

That’s “about the time you’re going to close your winter emergency shelter with about 150 people,” he said, and anticipated that “we’re going to have a gap of numbers here” as a result.

Capacity has long been a concern within the new system for delivering homeless services in the Salt Lake City area, which has space for about 400 fewer people than could fit in The Road Home’s old downtown emergency shelter.

Marbut said there’s “probably no magical way to solve that” issue, but said one idea could be for city leaders to change their capacity limits of 200 people at the two shelters in Salt Lake City and 300 at the one in South Salt Lake. Another possibility he floated could be the opening of a new resource center through a partnership with a nonprofit.

“It might be a mix of things,” Marbut said. “But what I do know is if you don’t take proactive care of dealing with that issue, it’s going to be done upon you.”

Jean Hill, one of the leaders of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, promised later at the meeting that the group’s crisis response team is already working on “figuring out long term and medium term overflow planning.”

Several local leaders have pointed to the most impactful solution for capacity concerns as funding affordable housing in the state Legislature — both in an effort to help people exit homelessness and prevent them from landing on the street in the first place.

But Lt. Gov Spencer Cox said Wednesday that the prognosis of a $35 million affordable housing bill currently moving its way through the state Legislature is unclear following the repeal late last month of a tax reform bill lawmakers had previously passed during a special session.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says a few words at a news conference at the State Capitol where Gov. Herbert proclaimed the second week in December as Computer Science Education Week in Utah and announced new computer science funding for Utah students, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

But “it just has to be done this year,” Cox said, pleading for public support for the bill among those at the meeting. “We can’t wait.”

During the coordinating committee meeting Wednesday, David Litvack, a senior policy adviser in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, gave an update on capacity within the current Salt Lake County system, which he said has seen between 95% and 98% of beds full each night since the temporary shelter opened Jan. 23.

The temporary shelter has since that time served an average of 117 people per night, with a high of 150 and a low of 75, he said. At the same time, there are an average 55 men at St. Vincent de Paul, which is also operating as an overflow, and 71 people experiencing homelessness utilizing motel and hotel vouchers.

“In addition, part of our overflow plan has been a housing campaign focused on our chronically homeless and some of our highest shelter utilizers,” Litvack said, noting that leaders have so far housed about 77 people experiencing homelessness.

Beyond concerns about capacity, Marbut also pointed to the nearly $17 million worth of debt the new resource centers are carrying as a potential problem moving forward, particularly for maintenance of the buildings.

“It’s a small fraction of what it was but what we have seen is if you’re carrying a debt, you’re not doing a renewal fund for the buildings — and you don’t want these buildings to start looking like what The Road Home looked like at the end,” he said.

The opening of the South Salt Lake shelter was delayed last summer as a result of a $13 million past-due bill on construction and a failure to pay contractors. Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the centers, requested and received a $21 million short-term bridge loan from Salt Lake County in May to complete construction on time, and leaders say they have been working on paying down that debt.

Marbut, who once worked as a consultant on homelessness in Utah with the Pioneer Park Coalition, was confirmed late last year to his post on the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates with 19 federal departments and agencies and works with states and the private sector to address homelessness nationwide.

Throughout his dozens of trips to Salt Lake City in the lead-up to Operation Rio Grande and the transition to the new system for delivering homeless services, Marbut advocated for the adoption of a campus-style homeless shelter model, where all services are concentrated in one location with ready access to health care, counseling, job training and other resources.

The divisive leader has come under fire nationally for his opposition to the popular “housing first model” for addressing homelessness, in which service providers prioritize putting a roof over people’s heads before helping them address other problems they may be facing, like mental health and addiction and for his inflammatory statements about feeding people facing homelessness.

But his comments Wednesday made no reference to some of his more controversial ideas, and Cox praised Marbut’s thoughts on how to address several challenges he said the state has already identified.

“It helps to have you kind of put an exclamation point on those for everyone around this table,” Cox said.

The lieutenant governor acknowledged challenges around data collection on homelessness, which Jonathan Hardy, director of the state Housing and Community Development Division, said state leaders are currently working to address.

He also expressed a need for a centralized leader within Utah’s complex homelessness landscape.

“We know that governance is a big problem here in our state and has been for a long time," Cox said. “You’ve got a ship with 12 steering wheels and it’s not a great design, not a very efficient design. We’re trying to figure that piece out, too.”