Erin Mendenhall: Homelessness in Utah is a statewide problem and needs a state solution

Salt Lake City has pulled more than its share of providing services for the homeless.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lee Littleford lives in his van, moving from spot to spot in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Littleford is known for delivering food to others in the community experiencing homelessness.

It’s cold outside with more snow yet to come and in Salt Lake City, we are keenly aware of the number of people who are still without shelter. I appreciate those who have reached out to the city on their behalf. I assure you: I share your frustration.

Homelessness is a statewide humanitarian crisis. It is complex and extremely challenging. And though our capital city has long taken responsibility well beyond any city’s typical role and partnered to make more services, shelter beds and housing available, it is heartbreaking and unacceptable that sufficient winter shelter beds are still not available for every unsheltered individual.

Salt Lake City comprises a mere 17% of the population in Salt Lake County but hosts more than 72% of its homeless services. As we did last winter and the winter before, Salt Lake City has been working closely with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and with community agencies like The Road Home, Volunteers of America, Shelter the Homeless and Utah Community Action to assist them in providing winter overflow shelter.

The city has cleared the way for overnight shelter use of The Weigand Center and the former Ramada Inn on North Temple, and continues to contribute money for outreach workers, protected storage for belongings and scattered overflow hotel rooms. During the cold weather in recent weeks, the county health department and city have ceased abatements on unsheltered camps but continue to clean public spaces in coordination with Advantage Services and other providers.

What our non-profit partners need most right now is sufficient staff to open these overflow options safely. Like so many other employers, they are struggling to recruit qualified workers to do this important work and are operating with dozens of vacancies. Salt Lake City has tried to amplify their pleas for applicants for these positions so they can open these overnight shelter options quickly.

Before we opened the Sugar House Temporary Shelter in early 2020, the state government opened an emergency warming center. It was a tremendous effort and required trained staff to open and operate, but it made a critical difference. I have urged state leaders to make the same choice now and open a temporary warming center for those on our streets waiting for the winter overflow shelter beds to become available.

The city and its partners are innovating constantly and doing our best to ensure everyone has the option of a safe, warm place to sleep at night, but to achieve this, that ‘we’ must include more support beyond our city’s boundaries. Compassion will continue to lead the city’s strategy, but that will never be sufficient on its own. This statewide crisis needs a statewide solution, both immediate and for the long term.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Dec. 13, 2021.

Erin Mendenhall is the mayor of Salt Lake City.