Bill to create a Utah homeless ‘czar’ passes through House committee

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Take Shelter Coalition, consisting of several community action groups, erects shelters, Jan. 3, 2020, at Salt Lake City Hall to show support of the homeless and to demand shelter and dignity for those who have been living on the streets.

Over the objections of several leaders in the homeless services arena, a Utah House committee voted 7-1 Thursday in favor of a proposal to establish a central leader to oversee the state’s direction on homelessness.

Proponents of HB394, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, say the bill would not only promote accountability and responsibility in efforts to address homelessness in the state but would also improve data sharing and ensure public dollars go to the programs that are most effective at reducing homelessness.

“This is the bringing of accountability — responsibility — to help the most vulnerable in our society,” argued Scott Howell, a member of the Pioneer Park Coalition, which advocates for Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area and seeks to address issues related to homelessness there.

But opponents of Coleman’s proposal argue that it’s unnecessary, noting that service providers already share data on homelessness and pointing to the increasingly collaborative work happening on the issue among service providers, government agencies and other parties.

“The representative talks about the lack of coordination,” Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for the homeless, told lawmakers on the House Government Operations Committee during public comment on the bill. “What we are talking about is the increased collaboration, which is more than coordination.”

One of their main concerns with the bill is that it would eliminate the decision-making power currently vested in the 15-member State Homeless Coordinating Committee and give it to a new state homeless services director. That move, they say, would effectively reduce the voices of local communities in addressing homelessness.

Lani Eggertsen-Goff, director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development, spoke on behalf of the capital city and the Utah League of Cities and Towns against the bill for that reason.

“The structure of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee has included mayors that received homeless resource centers and we would encourage that local representation remain in place,” she told lawmakers during public comment, arguing that the proposal would “neutralize” the role of that board.

Coleman noted that members of the board would remain on in an advisory capacity and argued that a homeless czar would be more effective at addressing homelessness than the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which meets just four times a year.

“That’s not real good governance,” she said. “That’s not best practices.”

Coleman also claimed that her proposal would remove the influence of the “competitors for funds and competitors for resources that make up” the board. But while service providers and others who vie for financial support do serve as advisory members, only elected officials have voting power.

In addition to concerns about governance, Jonathan Hardy, director of housing and community development at the state Department of Workforce Services, also worried about portions of the bill that would ask the homeless services director to prioritize funding for programs and providers that require participation in certain services as a condition of receiving permanent housing.

That proposal is counter to the “housing first” model espoused by many in the state’s homeless services community, who advocate for stabilizing someone on the streets in housing before attempting to address the myriad other issues he or she may be experiencing.

While Hardy said homeless leaders support “wraparound services” such as case management once someone has entered housing, he argued that it’s important people experiencing homelessness have a variety of options.

“What works for some populations doesn’t work for others and we want to make sure there’s flexibility amongst the programs that are supported so long as they’re achieving the outcomes, which is what is identified,” Hardy said. “We’re happy to support that concept, just not as the bill is constructed.”

Coleman tied that piece of the proposal to the third phase of Operation Rio Grande, an all-out effort to address homelessness and drug use in the area near the old Road Home shelter. The goal of that portion of the plan was to connect individuals to income that supports housing and she said her bill would help the state better achieve those aims.

“Our most successful service providers, that is a contingency for housing is that person is moving to self improvement,” she said.

An amended version of Coleman’s bill appeared online late Wednesday night, and there was some confusion among lawmakers at first about which proposal she was speaking to.

The substitute would have changed many of the elements those in the homeless services arena found objectionable, including the prerequisites for housing. Instead of establishing a homeless czar, the proposal would have created a homelessness adviser who would provide recommendations on the issue to the decision makers but would leave the role of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee intact.

Coleman did not attempt to move that version of the proposal forward, saying that it had been drafted and suggested “by another branch of government” and did not address the underlying concerns her legislation was targeting.

“The first sub[stitute] does not address the capitulated leadership, the active coordination, the strong data piece and the movement toward a dignity of work paradigm,” she said. “I don’t support it.”

Coleman’s original bill, which received praise from several lawmakers, passed through the committee with support from all committee members but Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. It now moves to the full House for further consideration.

Also on Thursday, a separate House committee approved a bill that 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.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla’s SB165, which already received a favorable recommendation in the Senate, comes after months of concerns about space constraints within the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless centers. That proposal now heads to the full House.