Robert Gehrke: Utah needs a workable, certain path for homeless residents, even if that means another shelter

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The pandemic has thrown everything about our lives into turmoil, and how we help homeless Utahns is no exception.

This past year, providers scrambled to accommodate the need to socially distance. They reduced beds at the resource centers and lined up overflow shelters and hotel rooms, a patchwork of improvised solutions to keep people safe from the elements and the coronavirus.

They managed to pull it off, to a remarkable degree.

At the same time, it certainly appears we’ve had a dramatic increase in people camping in parks and sidewalks — observations that will likely be validated when the new count of homeless Utahns is released in a few weeks.

And, while COVID-19 certainly complicated things, it’s not all that different from where we were a year prior, when a winter overflow shelter had to be set up at the old Deseret Industries building in Sugar House.

It’s why Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was correct when she told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board last week: “I believe we do need another shelter.

When the state restructured its homeless services, the goal was to move people into longer-term solutions more quickly, essentially getting them back on their feet. And by doing that, the state could have fewer shelter beds.

It’s a strategy with merit. Homelessness has always been the product of complex factors — joblessness, an unaffordable housing market, addiction and mental illness among them. Targeting those underlying causes moves us away from simply warehousing human beings because we don’t know what else to do.

But planning the new resource centers based on an aspirational goal was always a gamble.

It has not paid off, at least not yet.

David Kelly, chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said simply adding more shelter space doesn’t solve the problem.

“It’s not necessarily an issue of capacity. Do we add 300 more beds? Is that going to get it to where [campsites in] Rio Grande and Fleet Block and Taufer Park start to disappear? I highly doubt it,” he told me Friday. Instead of more money, he said, there needs to be a focus on making sure the resources available have the greatest impact.

He is, of course, right about that, as well. And there’s some reasons to hope things will get better.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation that will restructure the governance of homeless aid and consolidate programs under the new Office of Homeless Services in the Department of Workforce Services — the state “homeless czar,” as it is sometimes called.

Lawmakers also allocated $50 million for affordable housing and homeless programs — the only long-term solution to homelessness — which business leaders have pledged to match with $730 million of their own.

With clearer, streamlined leadership and a big influx of resources and without the burden of the pandemic, it’s possible we could see progress toward that lofty vision.

In the meantime, however, we can’t ignore the immediate need for a more cohesive, sustainable shelter strategy. If not a new shelter, like the mayor is calling for, then at the very least an emergency overflow for those cold winter months.

Even if we were able to manage to keep up with the current need, as Mendenhall astutely points out, we live in one of the fastest growing states in the country, and it’s logical to assume that our homeless population will grow at a comparable pace.

This COVID year has been a period of just trying to stay afloat. As we emerge from the pandemic and as new resources and new state leaders come online, there is an opportunity to reevaluate the direction we’re headed.

Part of that will be reassessing our resource center needs and, challenging as it may be, finding a workable solution to help more people find a safe place to stay for a few days.