Commentary: Utah should put federal money toward affordable housing

Housing First is the cornerstone of dealing with homelessness.

Utah, like much of the USA, faces the ugly specter of a homeless population of women, children and men, folks who represent a vulnerable portion of poverty-stricken people. What are some aspects of this crisis? Here are a few about Americans living in poverty and at the mercy of the streets.

Homeless citizens total over half a million, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Some 20 percent suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and previous incarceration. Many struggle with physical disabilities. Considerable research suggests that weak social ties and/or lack of connection to a religious community increases homelessness. We like to think Utah is better in that respect. But the state’s home ownership prices, rental rates and poverty levels suggest we face tough issues in reducing this problem.

A popular, but wrong, myth that people living on the streets prefer that kind of lifestyle is simply not true. As the data reveals, with supportive housing, people experiencing chronic homelessness have a strong desire for permanent housing, just like most Americans.

We write representing Coalition of Religious Communities (CORC), a network of faith leaders sponsored by the Crossroads Urban Center. CORC has been working to combat Utah’s homelessness problem for years. Now is the time to fix the crisis so all residents in our communities may enjoy a better quality of life.

Permanent supportive housing, a philosophy which Salt Lake County adopted over 15 years ago, is the cornerstone of the Housing First approach to addressing chronic homelessness. The Housing First model prioritizes placing people experiencing homelessness in permanent housing as the first step. This meets the most basic human need, shelter, while support services assist individuals and families with employment or management of substance abuse or behavioral health issues. In Salt Lake County, permanent supportive housing has a 96% retention rate.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (SLVCEH) estimates a need for 450 new units of permanent supportive housing for individuals, 150 units for families, and 300 new overflow shelter beds for the coming winter. Some forward thinking local officials seek to convert some of the city’s motel rooms into permanent supportive housing.

Over the next two years Salt Lake County will receive $225 million in funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). CORC believes Salt Lake County officials should dedicate 20% of that funding to the production of housing that would reduce homelessness in the county and encourage cities to do likewise.

CORC supports the recommendation of the SLVCEH to utilize ARPA funding to create a Low-Income Housing Fund to provide long-term, deferred, affordable financing as an ongoing funding source for low-income housing. In addition, any city receiving ARPA funding should be required to contribute to the Low-Income Housing Fund.

Utah, Weber and Salt Lake counties can and must do better to address our growing crisis. It’s our problem and we have the means to proactively fix it now. Do we also have the will and moral commitment?

Libby Hunter

Bill Tibbitts | Crossroads Urban Center

Warner Woodworth

Rev. Libby Hunter, Bill Tibbitts and Warner Woodworth are members of the Coalition of Religious Communities.