As part of a restructuring of the state’s model for helping people experiencing homelessness, former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser will serve as Utah’s first state homeless services coordinator, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Tuesday.
Niederhauser, an accountant and real estate broker who co-owns and operates CW Real Estate Services, was a member of the Utah Senate for more than 12 years. He currently sits on several nonprofit boards, including the Pioneer Park Coalition, a community group that is dedicated to addressing issues around crime and homelessness in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area.
The former Utah lawmaker will initially work part-time in the role, as he begins transitioning into the job Monday. His starting salary will be $75 per hour, or around $156,000 a year, and his total compensation is estimated at approximately $234,000 a year including benefits, though that number could change depending on which health care plans he enrolls in.
As he prepares for his new job, Niederhauser concedes he doesn’t have much on-the-ground experience related to serving unsheltered communities.
“My strength is going to be, I know how to navigate the policy areas and that’s going to be a big part of what this position does,” Niederhauser said in an interview on Tuesday. “Where I’m weak, I hope that we can bring in somebody that’s strong in those areas or I need to be out on the ground, seeing firsthand what needs to be done, making those discoveries.”
The new homeless coordinator does have some familiarity with homelessness issues, having served in legislative leadership during Operation Rio Grande, a massive public safety push in the Rio Grande neighborhood that was once the epicenter of homeless services in Utah’s capital.
And he has been outspoken in the past about the need for better data collection around homelessness, including after a 2018 state audit found poor data management, unclear goals, uncorrected errors and inconsistent methods for counting the number of chronically homeless.
Those issues left the auditors unable to answer the questions they set out to study, such as which state programs were successful at placing individuals in housing. Niederhauser suggested at the time that funding for service providers could be cut off or reduced until they improved their data tracking.
Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said Niederhauser’s lack of direct experience can be mitigated by listening to providers and those who have been homeless.
“If it’s someone who’s willing to recognize there is expertise within the providers that’s needed to coordinate this whole system, then it won’t matter as much,” she said, “as long as he is willing to reach out and learn from what those experts on the ground have to say.”
Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, said Niederhauser has the political capital to make progress on homelessness and hopes the new coordinator will think big and execute bold ideas.
“The question is if he’s willing to use that capital to push things that work,” Tibbitts said.
As he takes on his new role, Niederhauser said he plans to gain an understanding of “a lot of the nuances” around homelessness. “I‘m already reaching out to different stakeholders to meet with them,” he said. “I want to get a download on where we feel we’re at today and what they feel are things that could help us in the future.”
Niederhauser said he also plans to reach out to “a lot of different individuals in the homeless community” to learn about their needs and challenges.
While his lack of experience in homeless services may raise eyebrows for some, other proponents of the new governance structure have argued that it’s most important to have a strong leader in the role who can help oversee budgets, ensure accountability and shepherd good policy.
Cox, in announcing his appointment, noted that Niederhauser has helped solve “some of the most complex and difficult issues facing the state.”
“His leadership and ability to bring parties together will be crucial as we develop a coordinated approach to improving life for some of the most vulnerable among us,” Cox said in the statement.
And Pioneer Park Coalition leader Dave Kelly said in a statement that Niederhauser brings an “invaluable” breadth of experience.
“Having served as the president of the Utah Senate, we have all seen his leadership skills in action,” Kelly said in a statement, arguing that Niederhauser is the “chief homeless services coordinator Utah needs at this pivotal moment.”
Niederhauser will be the first person to serve as a state homeless services coordinator in Utah, a new position state lawmakers created earlier this year along with a new Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services.
Those changes to the state’s system for providing homeless services were recommended by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last fall, in a report that called the state’s current system “confusing,” overly “complex” and “inefficient.” Cox himself once described the governance structure as “a ship with 12 steering wheels.”
Proponents say the reorganization will better help unsheltered people move into permanent housing and will improve coordination among the nonprofits, local governments and private funders that are working to address homelessness in the state.
Niederhauser, who served on the advisory group that created the Gardner recommendations, presented the findings to The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board last fall. Mental health treatment, he said at the time, is the most important component to addressing homelessness, along with housing.
In an interview on Tuesday, Niederhauser added that “law enforcement is a big part” of the equation as well.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are preying on the homeless,” he said. “Drugs, sex trafficking, drug abuse. All that. And law enforcement has to play a big role in that for us to be successful.”
And while many believe that having a full-time coordinator is another key component, Niederhauser cautioned that the complex issue is “not going to be solved tomorrow.”
“This is not a quick fix; this is going to take a long-term effort,” he said. “People are going to have to have a little patience as we go through a discovery process.”