State might require more places in Utah to help the homeless

Bill would ensure camping bans are enforced and prompt more counties to prepare plans for assisting the unsheltered in winter.

Homelessness is back on the Legislature’s radar.

HB499, if passed by lawmakers this week and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, would make several tweaks to how Utah deals with homelessness in the coldest months, and require more counties along the Wasatch Front to step in and help out.

The goal, according to sponsoring Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is to help unhoused Utahns get on their feet. The legislation has the support of state homelessness czar Wayne Niederhauser.

“We want to get people out of the streets, where assaults, sexual abuse, drug use runs rampant,” Eliason told lawmakers in a committee hearing last week, “[and] at a bare minimum into low-barrier shelters, medium-barrier shelters, and then hopefully into housing, and connect them with services.”

What would HB499 do?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, right and Wayne Niederhauser, state homelessness coordinator, left, discuss HB499 before the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

The measure builds on a framework adopted by the Legislature last year that required leaders across Salt Lake County to come up with a shelter overflow plan for the winter.

Despite getting more beds on line faster than ever, the system still came up short of its goal, requiring the existing homeless resource centers to boost capacity.

If adopted in its current form, HB499 would force the planning process to wrap up earlier in the year, moving the deadline from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1.

It also would increase a state fund created to help cities that host a shelter and offer a larger share of money to communities willing to take on an overflow facility.

To receive that cash, cities with camping bans on the books would need to enforce them.

In a hearing Friday, Eliason told fellow lawmakers that allowing unfettered camping is inhumane, and cities that fail to enforce bans are bound to see more problems.

“If a city chooses, ‘We don’t want the mitigation funds; we’re not going to enforce it,’” Eliason said, “I think you look no further than Portland or Seattle to see what’s going to happen.”

The enforcement requirement would apply only if space is available in shelters.

Nomad Alliance founder Kseniya Kniazeva sees positive elements in HB499 but wants a sanctioned encampment option included so that shelters are not the only place to go.

“They’d rather risk freezing,” Kniazeva said, “than live in an environment where they feel like they’re in jail.”

Requiring more counties to act

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers and supporters of Nomad Alliance hold signs at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, said the proposal is complex and has parts he likes more than others.

“What is exciting about HB499 is that it requires all counties in the Wasatch Front,” he said in a text message, “to be engaged with efforts to ensure homeless people do not freeze to death in the winter.”

This winter, Eliason said, at least seven people died from exposure to the cold.

The bill would require all counties with a population of at least 175,000 people to prepare for helping unsheltered residents in the winter, beginning in 2024. That would place new planning requirements on Weber, Davis, Utah and Washington counties.

“We just want to make sure within Utah that the large areas have sufficient capacity to address the very small number of people experiencing homelessness,” Eliason said, “and to submit a plan about how they’re going to deal with that.”

The proposal has sparked blowback in the state’s second most populous county.

The Utah County Council of Governments submitted a letter to Niederhauser and the Legislature asking lawmakers to ditch the planning requirement. The measure would not require the counties to operate shelters.

“We would greatly appreciate a time period to learn more about the existing shelter system and expansion plans,” the council wrote, “the core philosophies underlying them, and the long-term vision of where this overall shelter approach will put Utah, and Utah County, decades from now.”

Provo spokesperson Nicole Martin said the city supported the letter but declined to comment further.

“We’re anxious to see where it goes,” she said, “and ready to engage where we need to.”

Utah County is home to roughly 685,000 people and has no homeless shelters. According to Eliason, nearly 200 unsheltered residents from Utah County have accessed services elsewhere.

Davis County has a population of nearly 370,000 and does not have a homeless shelter.

Bracing for frigid temperatures

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Burke, a volunteer with the Nomad Alliance, walks out of the House Business and Labor Committee meeting at the Capitol carrying signs the nonprofit had made for HB499, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

To protect unsheltered residents in extreme temperatures, HB499 sets up a “code blue” threshold that automatically allows shelters to expand their allowable capacity when temperatures drop to 15 degrees or lower.

Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, supports HB499 but said the temperature threshold is too low.

“It’s a crisis before it hits 15 degrees,” Garvin said. “It’s a crisis at least at 20 or 25 degrees.”

Garvin helps host “overnight movie nights” at the historic First United Methodist Church in downtown Salt Lake City so those experiencing homelessness have a way to stay warm on frigid nights.

The bill’s “code blue” provision would allow privately operated buildings, such as the church, to serve as legal temporary shelters.

Cities are supportive

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson, right, voices support for HB499 before the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Mayors in all of the Salt Lake County cities with homeless shelters voiced support for the legislation.

Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson, whose city has a family shelter, said he supports the increase in state funding to create a better overflow process in the winter and the “code blue” provisions that automatically increase shelter capacity on the coldest nights.

“I’m extremely proud of what Midvale has done in stepping up on homelessness,” Stevenson told lawmakers last week. “but we can do more, just like every other community can do more, and this bill strikes that balance.”

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said HB499 improves on the winter overflow planning processes adopted by the Legislature last year.

“The point of this is the cities are stepping up, and we’re doing this because this is a humanitarian need,” Silvestrini said. “People are going to freeze to death if we don’t have these shelters. It’s really not an ideological choice about keeping people from freezing to death.”

Andrew Wittenberg, spokesperson for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, said the mayor’s office supports the bill’s general premise but is working through revisions with the sponsors.