Utah bill addressing impacts of emergency situations on the homeless gains final approval

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) The Take Shelter Coalition, consisting of several community action groups, erected shelters on Friday, 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.

An earthquake shakes Ogden. Temperatures in St. George skyrocket above 110 degrees. A tornado rips up downtown Salt Lake City.

Under a bill that received final passage in the House on Wednesday, local governments would be required to create plans for how they would address the impacts of possible emergencies like those on one of the state’s most forgotten groups — people experiencing homelessness.

“We are a state that has plans in place for everybody if there’s an emergency or natural disaster,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, the bill’s House sponsor, in explaining the proposal to her colleagues during a committee hearing last week. “So I think it only makes sense we have one in place for this population, our most vulnerable population.”

The House voted 67-0 in favor of the bill Wednesday.

SB165, sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, asks local governments to work together to create a roadmap for how they would ensure the basic needs of people experiencing homelessness are met in an emergency.

The bill doesn’t contain any funding for implementing those plans and doesn’t outline specific situations local leaders need to address, defining an emergency only as conditions “that pose a risk to the health or safety” of people or families experiencing homelessness.

Instead, it leaves it open to local leaders to design plans.

“Every city has its own unique needs,” Hollins, a social worker and Salt Lake City Democrat, explained last week. “What’s happening in rural and what the needs are in rural Utah may not be what the needs are in Salt Lake City, so we wanted to put it back in their hands.”

The bill 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. Local leaders and homeless services providers, facing dropping temperatures and increased need for services, ultimately opened a temporary emergency overflow shelter in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is working to find other places for people to stay after the Sugar House overflow shelter closes in April.

Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the three resource centers, is also working to develop emergency plans to address the impacts of an outbreak of the coronavirus on its clients.

The nonprofit organization said in a news release on Wednesday that unsheltered individuals “are perhaps the most vulnerable” to the virus, since they don’t have the luxury of isolating themselves in their homes.

It will “develop emergency plans and address key prevention strategies to help protect staff, guests, and volunteers from contracting and spreading COVID-19,” in collaboration with the resource center operators, service providers, community leaders and public health officials, its statement said.

Escamilla has acknowledged that her proposal reflects conversations some communities are already having about how best to serve the homeless.

But the bill is also an effort to ensure preparation happens in areas that don’t have homeless shelters within their boundaries, she said. Plans for extreme heat or cold could direct leaders in communities far from services to issue motel or hotel vouchers to people without shelter, for example, Escamilla said.

Finally, she said she hopes her bill will ensure information is being brought up to the state, so leaders can better collaborate and determine when they need to provide resources.

“If we want to be a partner, we need to know what’s happening,” Escamilla told lawmakers in the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee last week. “We need to get information and make sure we are addressing data-driven public policy versus just reactionary public policy, which I think is where we are right now.”

SB165 now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.