Will Utah finally take meaningful action to confront homelessness? It should, writes Robert Gehrke.

After years of half-hearted efforts to tackle the crisis, the Utah Legislature should commit to a level of resources on par with the problem.

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

After years of big talk followed by Band-Aid solutions to solve homelessness in the state, could this finally be the year where Utah leaders actually get serious about caring for their fellow Utahns?

We could get an indication this week, when the Commission on Housing Affordability makes its request for more than $150 million for deeply affordable housing — reserved for households making 30% of the state’s average household income or about $22,000 a year.

If the money comes through, it would mark the biggest investment toward finally addressing the persistent and worsening humanitarian crisis.

It would come on the heels of $55 million that was allocated earlier this month for several housing projects: like turning shuttered motels into apartments; a tiny home village in Salt Lake City; and a mandate to set aside deeply affordable apartments in existing buildings.

“We wanted to get this money out early to show what can be done with it — how many projects, how many units — so we would have a strong argument for what can be done” if more is available, said Wayne Niederhauser, the Utah Homeless Coordinator.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser discusses the plans for winter overflow shelters and and transitional housing, during a news conference, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

All told, the $55 million is expected to generate more than 1,000 units of deeply affordable housing and applicants for the projects were asking for nearly three times that amount.

The hope is that nearly tripling the investment next year could result in a total of 4,000 roofs over the heads of individuals and families who either are unhoused or teetering on the brink of losing their homes.

It could make a profound difference in our communities and the lives of those living on the streets.

Over time, the new units would alleviate the strain on the overcrowded shelter system, particularly in the winter and among the chronically homeless, and reduce the number of people camping on the streets, said Bill Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center.

“If [the request is] adopted, I think we would see the number [on the streets] go down dramatically in the next couple of years and would show that we really can have a system where, during the winter, everyone who is willing to go inside can,” he told me.

Think about it: No more annual fights — as we’re seeing in Millcreek — over where to put winter overflow shelters, and fewer tragic stories about people like Joe Howe, who died from heat exposure this summer.

But notice Tibbitts said “if” it is adopted.

That’s because last year, advocates asked for $128 million for housing for very low-income Utahns and the unhoused. Gov. Spencer Cox included the figure in his initial budget request to the Legislature. Then, like now, I said it could be a game-changer. And when the dust settled, the Legislature allocated less than half that request.

At the time, Senate President Stuart Adams characterized it as a starting point and indicated more could follow if its shown to get results.

Last week, legislative leaders were briefed on how the money is being spent. On Wednesday, Niederhauser will go before the new Economic Opportunity Committee to make the pitch for the $150 million expansion. Over the coming weeks, he will also be making the case to the governor to once again include the figure in his budget proposal.

There are other components to the affordable housing plan — state aid designed to draw down federal tax credits and help finance new projects, for example.

But perhaps the most important component is that the projects include mental or behavioral health or addiction support for the new residents, aimed at keeping them from backsliding and ending up back on the streets.

“I want robust support because that is essential to successful housing,” Niederhauser said.

It’s going to take time to get some of this housing built and available, but now is the time to do it.

For too long, state leaders seemed to cling to the idea that the free market could solve the state’s issues with unhoused residents. But the market is uniquely ill-equipped to provide essential services without a profit incentive.

It’s time to address homelessness head-on with a sustained commitment of resources that meets the need, instead of treading water while more humans land on the streets.

“You don’t dig a hole for yourself over 10 years or 15 years and get back out in six months,” Tibbitts said. “That’s why this proposal is so important. This was a slow-developing crisis and we need a sustained effort to address it.”

With a huge state budget surplus and federal infrastructure money to spend, there really can be no more excuses. Let’s make this year the year we begin the process of helping our fellow Utahns get off the streets and build happy, productive lives for themselves and their families.