Ella Golden: Homelessness is ‘a statewide problem’. Utah cities need to work together to address it.

While people have a lot to say about individuals who “live on the streets,” not too many seem eager in finding a solution and getting individuals off the streets. A local news source reported the chronic homeless population has increased 250% in the last six years, with a 600% increase in spending (State Homeless Coordinating Committee and Continuum of Care programs) — but what good is the money if there is a lack of support? Cities such as Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, and Midvale host a majority of homeless resource centers in the state whereas other cities, like Draper, seem to be less keen on this. In 2017, Draper was given a $10 million one-time grant to establish a homeless shelter within the city.

Upon hearing the news that the Draper mayor had proposed two potential sites, an uproar came from local constituents. After a four-hour long meeting where the mayor was booed and hissed at by individuals in the community, the Draper mayor withdrew the potential sites. These individuals had a lot to say regarding concerns about a homeless shelter being placed in their community, but no one seemed concerned about providing solutions. If all it takes is a bunch of angry citizens to stop a potential homeless shelter being built in their community, what will stop other communities from doing exactly the same?

Salt Lake City appeared to be taking lead in providing resolutions, but even they took a temporary “pause” in establishing new homeless shelters. This pause went into effect October 2021 and has been extended up to May 2023. Reasoning behind this pause was to “update regulations and consider expanding where shelters should be allowed” but less outwardly stated was a hope that other cities would step up in helping the transient population. Salt Lake City hosts up to 3,000 homeless individuals, with a lot of those individuals migrating to Salt Lake due to known available resources. While Salt Lake is doing their best, they cannot do it alone. A more reasonable and sustainable notion would be to distribute resources across the state so each city could address the needs of those struggling in their communities instead of making it someone else’s problem.

Recent legislation such as HB440 attempted to address the issue, but (not surprisingly) it lacked the encouragement needed for other cities to step up. This bill ensures “emergency shelter space” and, if that fails, “flexing capacity limits at exist homeless resource centers.” This forces the responsibility back onto the cities already pulling a majority of the load while not holding any of the other cities in the state accountable for helping.

Within the last month, the Utah Legislature approved $55 million to be used towards “deeply affordable housing.” Across Utah, there are 17 facilities receiving funding, half of which are in Salt Lake County. Much like the previously listed bill this attempts to step in the right direction, but it does not address the lack of accountability for cities without established shelters and resource centers. The cities with established shelters and resource centers are receiving unprecedented funding, but they cannot be the sole providers for homelessness in the state.

Along with the new approved funding finally came an agreement between cities that homelessness is a “state-wide problem”. It’s about time! While it is great that everyone appears to be in agreement, what is going to be done regarding this “state-wide problem”? What cities are stepping up and willing to help the vulnerable in their communities? If Utah is really all about “people working together” as the state song says, it’s time to step up and be a part of the solution. Make Utah a great place to be, for everyone.

Ella Golden

Ella Golden is a student in the masters in social work program at the University of Utah.