Homelessness in Utah and across the nation continues as housing prices force more individuals and families out of the market. The evidence-based solution to homelessness has not changed. It is housing, including housing that offers an individual the services that will help people stay housed, whether that is mental health and substance abuse treatment or simply a place that is safe. The question is not how to resolve episodes of homelessness, it is whether we have the political and economic will to do so.
Political will to house people was tested in the 2022 legislative session. Gov. Spencer Cox requested $228 million for housing, with $128 million geared toward people experiencing homelessness. Legislators provided $55 million. That is not a small amount, but statewide project proposals from private providers for the funding came in this week totaling just over $168 million.
Since the end of the last legislative session, several state and local leaders have shown increasing political will to address our deeply affordable housing crisis. It has been encouraging to see mayors across Salt Lake County, for example, seeking not only winter overflow options, but also developing a strong understanding that shelter is a temporary salve. Permanent supportive affordable housing is the cure for homelessness.
More leaders are recognizing that permanent supportive and deeply affordable housing for people living in shelter or campsites benefits not only those most in need it but also local businesses and neighborhoods. People with a place to call home are more likely to find employment and will be vastly healthier than someone struggling to stay alive each day in a place not made for human habitation.
It is hard to apply for a job or seek health care without a regular address and extremely difficult to get a permanent address or health care without a job. A stably housed neighbor is a healthier neighbor and employee.
The same is true for someone in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment. It is incredibly hard to find affordable treatment with no income and even more complicated to make regular appointments when you have no assurances that everything you own will be at the campsite you left to attend an appointment.
Even with housing, if you lack transportation, regular attendance at jobs and appointments may not be reasonable expectations. Thus, housing cannot just be placed anywhere if we genuinely want to ensure those living deepest in poverty are able to climb out and up.
Homelessness is not simple. There are as many factors that result in homelessness as there are people experiencing homelessness. Despite the many possible reasons someone may lack a home, the solution remains the same – housing with wrap around services that address those reasons.
There is a growing list of creative, economical ways to develop more affordable and supportive housing. Ideas are not lacking, but we as a state must first agree that moving people off city streets and out of homelessness is a priority.
As legislators begin to set their sights on their top goals for the 2023 session, please encourage your legislators to make evidence-based solutions for ending homelessness through permanent supportive and deeply affordable housing the top priority for Utah. Allocating the remainder of Gov. Cox’s $128 million request from 2022 would be a good start.
Jean Welch Hill is government liaison and director of the Office of Life, Justice & Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City