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Utah legislation would address the ‘confusing’ system to help the homeless

The bill would create a new Office of Homeless Services and put a single person in charge of overseeing policy affecting the state’s unsheltered populations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People experiencing homelessness seek shelter under the freeway on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. A Utah House committee voted 7-1 Thursday in support of a bill that seeks to address problems in the state’s homeless services system.

A Utah House committee voted 7-1 Thursday in support of a bill that seeks to address problems in the state’s homeless services system, which has been described as “confusing,” overly “complex” and “inefficient.”

The bill, HB347, would create a new Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services and would put a single person in charge of overseeing policy affecting the state’s unsheltered populations, in accordance with the recommendations of a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last fall.

“The ultimate objective of this bill is to help people step out of homelessness and back into our community, to help people address the underlying causes of homelessness so it does not become a revolving door, which for the chronically homeless is far too often the case,” Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy and the bill’s sponsor, told members of the House Government Operations Committee.

The bill outlines the duties of the state’s new homelessness coordinator, who would be appointed by the governor and would serve on the Utah Homelessness Council, a new body created under the bill that would be tasked with making decisions on homelessness policy.

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

And he or she would be dedicated full time to addressing the challenges of homelessness.

“As our issues surrounding homelessness have grown,” Eliason argues that it’s too much to expect the lieutenant governor, who chairs the state’s current Homeless Coordinating Committee, “to be able to give the time and attention to this issue that is needed.”

“It’s really just eclipsed what the current format is,” he said.

The proposal comes after the Gardner Institute report pointed 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 described 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.”

Eliason’s bill largely encompasses the recommendations of that report, which brought together multiple stakeholders involved in homeless services to come to a consensus on how best to fix the problems identified.

Homeless advocates had previously expressed concern, though, about a portion of Eliason’s bill that would call for the new homeless services leader and the Utah Homelessness Council to prioritize funding for programs and providers that “require participation in appropriate services as a condition of receiving any permanent housing.”

Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, argued that proposal was 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.

“Disappointed that HB 347 returns to anti-housing-first language from last year’s czar bill, eliminates local homeless coordinating committees,” she wrote on Twitter last week. “Lot of time and money on a study just to ignore its recommendations AND best practices.”

The version of the bill that was adopted Thursday removed that provision, and homeless advocates, including Hill, largely spoke in support of the proposal.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said the amended version of the legislation would help complement the work already being done by local entities, including the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

“We believe that having a strong governance model at the state level with full involvement of our local governments and local homeless councils and private funders, we can really shift our system in the state of Utah,” she said during public comment. “We can reduce homelessness. We can enhance our efforts to keep our family safe and stable in their own homes.”

Former Utah Rep. Kim Coleman, who ran a bill in last year’s session that attempted to establish a central leader to address homelessness, said she was also supportive of Eliason’s proposal but expressed concern that the homeless committee had too much ability “to influence the world that has already been very troubled in this area.”

Under the bill, the Utah Homelessness Council would be comprised of local, regional and state representatives with decision-making authority over public funds and policies or private funds that align with the state’s goals around homelessness. It would also include mayors of cities that host emergency homeless shelters and one person who had previously experienced homelessness.

The council would, alongside the homeless services coordinator, be responsible for enacting a statewide strategy to reduce homelessness, reviewing local and regional homeless services plans and identifying best practices and recommending improvements to the overall system.

Pioneer Park Coalition leader Scott Howell said the group, which seeks to address issues related to homelessness in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area, was generally supportive of the bill but would also like to see some amendments. The proposal currently mandates that the homeless council meet four times a year, but he said he thinks its duties are “important enough” that it should meet monthly.

Howell also wants to see the council set up a dashboard “that they can measure outcomes and inputs and make sure that we are on the right track.”

During discussion on the bill, Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, raised questions about the bill’s hefty fiscal note of nearly $800,000 in ongoing funds a year for personnel costs and per diems for council members.

“I’m surprised. We’ve been making it [under the old system] but now it’s going to cost $800,000,” he said. “That’s a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

“There would be some people who would say we got what we paid for,” Eliason responded, noting that the bill would create an “organized process” for overseeing the hundreds of millions of dollars that support homeless services, including housing and Medicaid dollars.

Petersen was the only committee member to vote Thursday against the bill, which now moves to the full House for further consideration.

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