New report calls for statewide officer to oversee Utah’s response to homelessness

Utah’s existing homeless governance structure is “confusing,” overly “complex” and “inefficient” — and a failure to address the problems inherent in the system could cause the state to “backslide” on the progress it’s made so far.

That’s according to a new report the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah released Tuesday that identifies several problems with the state’s homeless services system and outlines recommendations it says would streamline accountability and transparency, if implemented.

The key component of the proposal is the creation of a homeless services officer — advocates reject the term “homelessness czar” — who would be chiefly responsible for setting the direction for homelessness policies in the state, alongside the newly-proposed Utah Homeless Council.

“The comparison I’ve used is when we were hosting the world for the 2002 Olympic Winter games, we had a state Olympic officer,” Natalie Gochnour, director of the Gardner Institute, said in presenting the plan to The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board on Tuesday. “Now, they’re doing very different things. But it’s the idea that when you have a significant state need and a state interest, that the homeless services officer is a model we can follow just like the state Olympic officer.”

This isn’t the first time policy makers have considered an effort to create a statewide position tasked with overseeing homelessness.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, ran a bill this winter that sought to establish a central leader to address the issue after the nation’s federal homelessness czar called for the state to revamp its system to make it clear “where the buck stops.” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox described the current governance model at that time as “a ship with 12 steering wheels.”

But the legislative effort ultimately failed after it came under fire from homeless service providers who said it was unnecessary and would consolidate too much power in a single individual. Instead, lawmakers approved some of the funding for the Gardner Institute to study the governance issues further.

The proposal released Tuesday has much broader support than the one that was introduced to the Legislature this spring, Gochnour said — in part because its recommendations are a product of conversations with stakeholders from across the homeless system, including providers and local government officials.

Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, expressed support for the proposal Tuesday, noting that the Gardner Institute’s recommendations “better reflect what we’re doing” and “what is working” in the homeless system but also identify “the things that need to be changed.”

“The key now is [making sure] that that’s what comes out of the Legislature — and that’s going to be the harder problem now is just making sure it’s not tweaked in ways in the Legislature that make it, again, back to something that isn’t going to improve the situation,” she said during the meeting with the Tribune’s editorial board.

Several service providers and leaders in the homelessness arena also spoke in favor of the Gardner Institute’s recommendations during the State Homeless Coordinating Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, including Midvale Mayor Robert Hale, who said he thought “having a leader with lots of clout” was “the right way to go.”

The Gardner Institute said it expects lawmakers will run a bill in next year’s general session to address their recommendations and noted that legislative leadership has been supportive of the proposal.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Donald packs up his camping supplies on 500 West in Salt Lake City as he gets ready to go to work on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. He is one of many unsheltered people camping in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘You have no Mitt Romney'

While Gochnour praises Utah’s strides toward addressing homelessness in recent years, she argues that the state is at a crossroads for making further progress. And she criticizes the current governance structure as an obstacle in the way, one that’s “rife with alignment and capacity issues, conflicts and inefficiencies.”

The Gardner Institute report points to several problems with the state’s handling of homelessness, including a confusing leadership structure, an inefficient decision-making framework that “few people understand” and resulting communication gaps that “hinder the state’s ability to collect data, measure progress, enact effective policies, coordinate response and share results.”

It describes the current governance as “an amalgamation of well-meaning, but less than optimized entities and community leaders that experience capacity and alignment issues, as well as unnecessary conflicts or potential for conflicts.”

Robert Marbut, the federal government’s homelessness czar, expressed similar concerns about the state’s homeless governance during a virtual meeting Monday with the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group that advocates for the community near the now-demolished downtown Rio Grande homeless shelter and for addressing issues related to homelessness in the neighborhood.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Robert Marbut talks during a Pioneer Park Coalition meeting at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Marbut is a proponent of a controversial approach to homelessness that purportedly encourages a campus-type approach for homelessness and tough enforcement outside of that of anti-panhandling and loitering laws. Homeless advocates like the Crossroads Urban Center contend the approach is "dehumanizing" and "bullying."

“The big thing I think you’ve got to think about is how you manage yourself,” he said, recounting a conversation he’d had with a newspaper editorial board in Utah that asked him how to solve homelessness.

“They said, ‘What do you got to do?’ and I said, ‘You’ve got to have a leader,” he said. “They said, ‘What do you mean you’ve got to have a leader?’ I said, ‘You have no Mitt Romney. You’ve got a major problem here and you have no leader on it.’”

Romney was the CEO and president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee that led out on the 2000 Winter Olympics.

As signs of a possible symptom of the problems in the system, the Gardner Institute report notes that there’s been an influx of funds put toward homelessness in recent years — including around $63 million spent to create three new homeless resource centers in the Salt Lake Valley and $19.5 million in funding approved earlier this year for services with a priority on emergency shelter — but that key goals around homelessness are not being met.

The number of individuals experiencing homelessness for the first time has increased, as has the length of stay in shelters. And the number of children experiencing homelessness has also continued to rise.

“Private donors and elected officials are concerned the resources poured into solving these issues have not warranted the expected results,” the report notes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 12, 2020.

Proposed system changes

If the Gardner Institute plan is ultimately approved by legislative leaders, the state’s new homeless services officer would likely enter this scene sometime next year and would be appointed by and report to Cox, the state’s new governor.

The report notes that the ideal candidate for the job would be a “seasoned leader” with finance and strategy expertise and widespread relationships in the public and private sector. The person would need to be empathic, have a commitment to implement best practices around homelessness and have a focus on service — but doesn’t necessarily need to have any previous experience in the homelessness arena.

“It would be a plus if they had that,” Gochnour said.

But the Gardner Policy Institute is primarily calling for someone to take on the high-level leadership role “who can navigate change, can work through complexity, can build consensus,” she said.

The report presents a number of other changes recommended to the state’s homeless governance that, if implemented, Gochnour says would create a “simpler, more transparent and coordinated system that is more effective” and would “save money over the long run.”

As part of the proposal, the state’s new homeless services officer would serve as the executive director for the newly-proposed Utah Homeless Council, a body that would replace the State Homeless Coordinating Committee and would serve as the decision-making body for homelessness policy.

The homeless services officer would represent the deliberations and decisions of that council to the governor, the Legislature and the public at large and would also coordinate with the public and private sector, oversee and recommend a homeless budget and take responsibility for administrative duties.

The Utah Homeless Council would be responsible for enacting a statewide, system-wide strategy to reduce homelessness, review local and regional homeless services plans and support consistent and transparent data collection on services.

It would be comprised of local, regional and state representatives with “direct decision-making authority over public funds and policies” or private funds and policies that align with the state’s goals around homelessness as well as people with “direct lived experience receiving services in Utah’s publicly-funded homeless and housing system" as well as mayors of cities that host emergency shelters that fit certain specifications.

Under the plan, both the Utah Homeless Council and homeless service officer would be housed in the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

In its final big proposed change, the Gardner Institute also pitched the creation of a “philanthropic consortium” to coordinate leading private funders in the state “in a more effective manner” and representation for members on the Utah Homeless Council “to maximize collaboration and communication between public and private funding.”

The compact would be guided by several principles, including prioritizing children and youth and taking a systemwide and statewide approach to funding.