Utah won’t need a new homeless shelter if it can speed up getting people into housing, new coordinator says

Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser argues that resource centers have turned into long-term shelter for some individuals.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, during the 2018 legislative session. Recently named the state’s first homeless coordinator, Niederhauser said he wants people to be moved out of the Salt Lake Valley’s three resource centers and into housing at a faster clip.

Overcrowding in the Salt Lake Valley’s three resource centers for those without shelter would probably be solved — without building a fourth center — if people were moving through them to housing at a faster clip, Utah’s new homeless services coordinator believes.

“If we can get people into a more permanent situation, we probably have plenty of short-term [beds] with our resource center[s],” Wayne Niederhauser said this week during a meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.

“And so the model or the vision” of the state, county and local leaders who created the three centers to provide temporary shelter “is right,” he said. “It does seem like at this point that a complete execution of the design [of the broader system] has not altogether been implemented.”

Niederhauser said he’s heard of people staying in the centers for “hundreds of days,” much longer than envisioned.

A legislative audit of the effectiveness of the new resource centers is expected to be released soon, Niederhauser said. In addition to providing basic emergency shelter, they offer an array of services and move people toward permanent supportive housing, transitional housing or rapid rehousing.

The new Office of Homeless Services has a mandate to develop a plan for alleviating the housing bottleneck that’s keeping people in emergency shelter for too long, he added.

A 2019 strategic plan laid out the state’s mission of making homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring,” and established benchmarks for achieving those goals.

But Niederhauser surmised that the absence of a clear governance structure for carrying out that plan might have interfered with its execution.

“This is the effort to try and correct that,” he said. Niederhauser, the former Senate president, was appointed earlier this month by Gov. Spencer Cox to become the state’s first homeless coordinator.

What if the centers don’t shift back to being short-term springboards?

Service providers and officials in Utah have said they are working to shorten the amount of time people spend in emergency shelters.

But the most recent statewide report said there’s still room for improvement — with the average length of stay hovering just above 55 nights and increasing slightly over the prior year.

Those longer stays are probably related to the state’s affordable housing deficit, Niederhauser said, which likely makes it difficult for individuals to find a path out of the resource centers.

And if the state can’t decrease the length of stay at these facilities, Niederhauser said, he’d agree with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who recently called for an additional shelter in Utah to meet the growing need.

“If the resource centers are going to be used as long-term shelters, you’re going to need at least one more, and maybe more. That’s a fact,” Niederhauser said.

“But if the resource centers are used for what we hoped they would be used for ... as a springboard to services and to housing, I think I would say that we have enough of that.”

Over about the past month, the three resource centers — with combined space for 700 people — have been at roughly 90% capacity, said Christina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

The availability of overflow shelter beds and hotel and motel vouchers could be suppressing that number somewhat, she noted.

The state’s 2020 Point-in-Time Count, an annual one-night census, tallied 3,131 individuals experiencing homelessness, a 12% increase compared to 2019.

The state had 2,563 emergency shelter beds as of its August 2020 report on homelessness, although that figure doesn’t account for permanent supportive housing, transitional housing or rapid rehousing.

What’s next?

Mendenhall, during her campaign for mayor, was among the politicians and advocates who expressed concern that the new $63 million resource centers wouldn’t have space for everyone in need of shelter, especially during the frigid winter months.

Those concerns turned out to be well-founded when the centers — which collectively had space for 400 fewer people than the downtown Road Home emergency shelter they replaced — quickly filled to capacity after their opening in 2019.

Since then, to prevent people from getting stuck on the streets on bitterly cold nights, officials have relied on stopgap measures ranging from hotel and motel vouchers to temporary overflow shelters.

Much of that emergency response has fallen to Salt Lake City, which opened a temporary overflow site in Sugar House neighborhood in early 2020 and converted a hotel on the west side of the city into ad hoc shelter space toward the year’s end.

Niederhauser said he hasn’t reached firm conclusions about what should happen next with Utah’s overall system of shelters and housing programs, and is instead listening and getting settled into his new role. An accountant and real estate broker who co-owns and operates CW Real Estate Services, he is slated to begin his new position full time on July 1.

Proponents expect the creation of the new Office of Homeless Services and the coordinator job to better help unsheltered people move into permanent housing and improve coordination among the nonprofits, local governments and private funders working to address homelessness in the state.