Leading Utah gubernatorial candidates want a ‘homeless czar’

Two of Utah’s leading gubernatorial hopefuls say they support the creation of a central leader to address homelessness in the state — an idea that was wildly unpopular among homeless service providers when a state lawmaker proposed it earlier this year.

Proponents of the concept — and of a bill sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan — say appointing a single point person with the final say on how to help unsheltered communities would promote accountability and responsibility in efforts to address homelessness in the state.

Robert Marbut, the federal government’s top homelessness official, has also called on the state to simplify its leadership structure, arguing that the public needs to know “where the ultimate buck stops.”

But service providers insisted that such a position was unnecessary, pointing to the increasingly collaborative work to address homelessness happening among service providers, government agencies and other parties and maintaining that a central state leader would take away local control.

Coleman’s proposal passed through the House but ultimately failed in the Senate.

[Read more: Election 2020: Utah’s gubernatorial candidates and where they stand on the issues]

Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, chairman of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, has expressed interest in the idea of a homeless coordinator in the past, describing the current system as an inefficiently designed “ship with 12 steering wheels.” He told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent survey of gubernatorial candidates that such centralized leadership would be the most effective way to reduce Utah’s homeless population as the state grows.

“Our responsibility to the poorest among us is too great not to dedicate a full-time expert to advance communication between varying jurisdictions and proactively identify solutions,” he said. “Together, we must continue to develop and implement data-driven and compassionate policies that lend toward self-sufficiency, carefully invest our community resources, and ensure that systems and services are coordinated for their best use.”

Cox said he would also pursue the state’s new Strategic Plan on Homelessness, which focuses on reducing the numbers of days spent in emergency beds or shelters, of people returning to homelessness and of individuals experiencing homelessness for the first time.

In addressing homelessness in The Tribune’s survey, candidate Jon Huntsman pointed to the efforts of his administration when he served as governor from 2005 to 2009. The gubernatorial hopeful said he reduced chronic homelessness by 91% through a housing-first approach that had “remarkable success” — though experts say that drop was also driven by changes in reporting methodology. Chronic homelessness was narrowly defined and only applied to a small faction of the entire unsheltered population.

If elected again, Huntsman said he would employ similarly “innovative” approaches. He also promised to appoint a director of homeless services who would be “free of distractions from other policy issues, to coordinate efforts and report directly to me.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jon Huntsman Jr., seen here in 2008 while he was Utah's Governor.

In follow-up interviews, most of the other candidates expressed interest in a homelessness czar, regardless of party affiliation.

In doing so, former House Speaker Greg Hughes called for greater coordination to address homelessness but said Cox, the chairman of the committee, “could do it now.”

“If there’s no interest or ability [on the part of the leader]," Hughes said, “then you need to strengthen the statute."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton was the only candidate to break with her opponents on the issue, saying that, for her, the problem came down to local control.

“The local communities, our local leaders know better what their community needs in regard to homelessness," she said, advocating for a “bottom-up” strategy where service providers or municipalities could approach the state for help if needed. "That works better than the state having a top-down approach.”

Affordable housing & mental health

For several of those seeking the governor’s office, the ultimate solution to homelessness is a simple one: ensuring people have a place to live.

That’s easier said than done, though, in a state officials estimate lacks roughly 45,000 dwellings affordable to those earning below-average wages.

That’s why some of the candidates say any solution to homelessness needs to include a plan to address the state’s housing shortages — both as a way to help people exit homelessness and to prevent them from landing on the streets in the first place.

If elected, Democratic candidate Zachary Moses said he would work as governor to encourage more micro-housing and tiny houses and would require “progressive limits” on the short-term rental market used by platforms like Airbnb “to encourage more rentals to transition back into long-term housing.”

“It’s also time for the state to update its rent/landlord control laws, which have long favored landlords and afforded no rights to the renter,” he said in The Tribune’s survey.

Candidate Jan Garbett said the state needs to increase the supply of homes and apartments “that ... the poorest can afford.” She also advocated for funding programs to help people experiencing homelessness get into housing, with a particular focus on chronic homelessness.

For former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright, any solution to homelessness requires increasing the affordable housing stock and mental health services.

“So many of the challenges our state faces are connected and attempting to solve one without the others sets us up for failure,” he said. “We need to make it easier to get mental health treatment and addiction treatment. We also need to make sure that, after treatment, Utahns have a fair shot at finding affordable housing close to their jobs and their support systems.”

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham also pointed to a need for more mental health providers to solve homelessness and advocated for public-private partnerships and individual action to address the issue.

“There are many organizations doing great work on this issue," he said, “and as members of the community we should each do what we can to support them.”

System successes & reform

Even as candidates plan for the future under their leadership, several turned their eyes to the work that’s already been done in the Salt Lake City area’s homeless services system, with the opening of three new homeless resource centers that replaced The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter late last year.

Hughes, who was involved in the inception of that system, praised the new model, which is meant to offer a wider range of services to people experiencing homelessness to help move them off the streets for good. The “greater focus on individual needs has the added benefit of fending off the criminal element and those that seek to prey upon vulnerable people,” he said.

The candidate gave few new ideas for addressing homelessness under his administration but also took the time to applaud Operation Rio Grande, though not by name. He was a major architect of that two-year law enforcement attack on lawlessness in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

“The ACLU may not agree but people experiencing homelessness are entitled to the same level of public safety and social order that the rest of us have come to expect,” he said, referencing a report from the American Civil Liberties Union released late last year that criticized the campaign for an over-reliance on arrests and for placing a long-term burden on the community.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Officers check a homeless man's pockets for drugs on Wed. Aug. 8, 2018 as part of Operation Rio Grande.

Though they earned praise from Hughes, several gubernatorial hopefuls expressed concern in their survey responses about the current efforts to address homelessness, pointing to a lack of funding and bed shortages that have plagued the new Salt Lake City area system since its formation.

Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah professor, said he was worried “that we may not have sufficient beds and resources to accommodate our rapidly growing population” as the state experiences booming population growth.

He also raised concerns about law enforcement efforts to reduce homelessness, noting that “jails are not efficient or cost effective in treating mental health problems or addiction.”

But while “urban poverty and homelessness is far easier to recognize,” Peterson noted that homelessness “is a problem in some of Utah’s rural areas as well.”

“As governor," he said, “I would work relentlessly with Utah’s community partners, including nonprofits, churches, the business community and government at all levels in addition to law enforcement, to help ease and reduce this terrible problem.”

In considering the current homeless system, Winder Newton expressed a need for reform on three fronts: workforce services, the criminal justice system and local social service safety nets.

“We have outstanding community partners working tirelessly to tackle homelessness," she said, “but there is more we can do as a state besides convene working groups and talk about teamwork.”

While Winder Newton said she would seek a combination “of prevention, outreach, case management, mental health assets, community engagement and transitional housing” to address homelessness, she also called for a paradigm shift in how people view unsheltered populations.

“As a society, we should view our homeless brothers and sisters as people rather than liabilities,” she said. “While we do need to provide assistance, we can reform our model to more effectively connect these individuals with opportunities, not just services.”

Editor’s notePaul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.