Utah lawmaker seeks to consolidate leadership on homelessness

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 23, 2020, file shows a winter overflow homeless shelter opened up in Sugar House for the season after it became clear the recently overhauled homeless resource system didn't have sufficient capacity. The temporary shelter closed last week.

A bill introduced in the Utah Legislature seeks to shake up the state’s efforts on homelessness by establishing a central leader responsible for addressing the issue.

HB394, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, is part of an effort to streamline a system Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox described recently as a “ship with 12 steering wheels.” And it comes just weeks after the federal government’s top homelessness official, Robert Marbut, called on the state to simplify its leadership structure.

The public needs to know where “the ultimate buck stops,” Marbut advised the State Homeless Coordinating Committee at its meeting earlier this month.

“Right now there are a lot of players,” he continued. “I’ve already heard six groups tell me specifically they were in charge of different entities and four other groups have said on paper they have a big piece of this. And so I think that needs to be clarified.”

Coleman’s bill seeks to address that challenge with the creation of a state homeless services director position within the division of Housing and Community Development. That official would be appointed by the governor and responsible for coordinating resources for unsheltered populations, including funding.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

Coleman, R-West Jordan, said she sees a lack of “clear governance” as an obstacle to addressing homelessness in the state.

“You have people who have different services all over the state and nothing’s coordinated,” she said. “It’s hard to help people when it’s not coordinated.”

HB394 is one of several proposals in the current state legislative session that would address the inner workings of the state’s homelessness system.

Also under consideration is Sen. Luz Escamilla’s SB165, which would require local homeless coordinating committees to develop a plan and establish guidelines for their responses during an emergency situation to ensure that the basic needs of people experiencing homelessness are met.

That bill, which is scheduled to receive a committee hearing Wednesday, comes after months of concerns about space constraints within the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless centers, which began to show early signs of strain in October.

Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said it’s important for local governments to be looking at homelessness while also passing those plans “up the ladder” for coordination at the state level.

“I want to make sure the state is involved and being a partner in the solution,” she said.

Asked if her bill would have changed the transition to new service centers in Salt Lake County, she said the final outcome would have been similar but it would have changed the transition process, including the city’s recent decision to open a temporary emergency shelter during the winter months.

Cities, Escamilla said, should not be on their own responding to the homelessness crisis.

“They should feel that the state is behind them, that the other cities that surround them are behind them, and the counties are behind them,” she said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she was supportive of of Escamilla’s focus “on local level, cooperative emergency planning and preparedness for homeless services.”

“In Salt Lake City we found a solution this winter for temporary overflow shelter, but looking ahead we’re very focused on a collaborative long-term emergency plan that coordinates with state, county and surrounding communities’ support to be prepared collectively when additional homeless services are necessary,” she said in a statement.

Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said in an interview that Escamilla’s bill reflects conversations that body is already having and that would go on regardless of a state mandate.

And she doesn’t think the bill “would have necessarily changed anything” had it come ahead of the transition to the new resource center model, pointing to a “perfect storm” of issues that delayed the closure of The Road Home’s old downtown shelter from summer into the late fall.

“This is just a unique transition time,” Hill said. “Next winter we already know we need overflow and we won’t still be in the initial transition phase so I don’t think you’ll see the same kind of ongoing crisis decision-making going on next summer.”

Since the temporary Sugar House temporary shelter opened last month, it has served an average 110 people experiencing homelessness each night, according to data from the Department of Workforce Services.

Meanwhile, the new resource centers remain “essentially full,” with an average of eight beds available each night across them, according to Christina Davis, a spokeswoman with the Department of Workforce Services.

Around 51 people have slept on mats and cots each night at an overflow shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and about 71 have hotel and motel vouchers, she said Friday. That means there are approximately 224 more people in the system than the resource centers alone have the capacity to handle.

Hill said the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness’ crisis response team is already working on figuring out long-term overflow planning for next winter. Michelle Flynn, interim executive director of The Road Home and a member of that committee, noted that the group is currently examining data and said she expects to present recommendations sometime after the Sugar House shelter closes in April.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report