Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and leaders from the state and county levels are looking to the Sunshine State for ways to better serve vulnerable Utahns who frequently get caught up in the criminal justice system.
This month, officials from Utah traveled to Miami, Florida, to learn how leaders in that city work together to prevent unsheltered residents and those struggling with mental illness from cycling through the system.
Mendenhall said Miami’s culture of collaboration has led to better outcomes for residents at a better cost for taxpayers.
“They are spending a fraction of the cost on serving these high-needs and high-impact individuals in the right way — by providing stable housing, case management and access to medical and behavioral mental health care needs — than they were, as we are today, trying to run them through a criminal justice system that does not serve them,” she said.
The meeting, which also included members of Salt Lake Chamber and the Downtown Alliance, was hosted about an hour before former Mayor Rocky Anderson announced his bid for another term at city hall.
Mendenhall, who campaigned on the importance of addressing homelessness in Utah’s capital, was attacked by Anderson on Wednesday for not doing enough to address the crisis during her first two years in office.
“Now, our city is degraded, crime-ridden, dangerous, filthy in many areas, and cruel toward the members of the homeless community, without even a coherent plan from our mayor,” Anderson said during his biting announcement speech.
The effort by state, county and city officials to help Utah’s unhoused population collaboratively didn’t really come into focus until last year, the mayor said Wednesday.
“We can do this,” she said. “We are absolutely capable of doing this, and we very much want to do this.”
The officials — including police chief Mike Brown, state homeless services coordinator Wayne Niederhauser and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill — said the recent trip to Miami helped solidify their beliefs that the best way to help the region’s chronically unhoused population is to work together.
Erin Litvak, Salt Lake County deputy mayor, said the Miami trip was “eye-opening from a community-wide standpoint.” Instead of being siloed, Litvak said, the criminal justice system and agencies addressing homelessness and behavioral health should work as one.
Gill said the area already has many of the same resources that Miami-Dade County has, but the South Florida county has built a cohesive approach that Salt Lake County hopes to emulate.
“Transitional housing and deeply affordable housing are political solutions that cannot be substituted by criminal prosecution alone,” the recently re-elected county attorney said. “Unfortunately, we have looked to the criminal justice system to be our crisis managers, and what we have learned is that we will never be able to arrest our way out of this situation.”
Collaboration was successful in Utah recently. Officials agreed to set up a temporary shelter at a former county library in Millcreek to house up to 100 unsheltered Utahns during the frigid winter months. Existing shelters also were expanded to meet demand.
“It has been a heavy lift, but working together, we were able to get these beds opened by the first part of November,” state homelessness czar Niederhauser said in a text to The Salt Lake Tribune. “In [the] past, since winter overflow has been needed, the response hasn’t been completely opened until January. Last year, it wasn’t completely opened until after mid-January.”
Niederhauser estimated Wednesday that local shelters were operating at roughly 75% capacity, though, he said, November was warm and the number of those seeking shelter will likely increase.
In Salt Lake County from 2020 to 2021, the number of people who experienced homeless decreased but people remained homeless for a longer period of time, according to a 2022 report from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services.
Additional details about how the Utah collaborators would implement Florida-like efforts were still being discussed, the group said.
— Tribune reporter Blake Apgar contributed to this story.