Bill Tibbitts: Two solutions to Utah’s shocking surge in child homelessness

We need a new family shelter and to make sure all children have a warm place to live.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katherine and Jonny Miller serve food as the Miller family provides more than 3,000 Thanksgiving meals for people experiencing homelessness, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

Between January 1 and November 15 there have been 2,237 children who have accessed homeless shelter services in Utah. This total number is a 35% increase over the number of children accessing shelter services last year.

Given this increase, it should not be surprising that, for the first time in over 20 years, children in Salt Lake County are being turned away from homeless shelters because there are not enough beds indoors for all the families that need help. In September alone, more than 70 families with children were turned away from the family shelter when they called for help.

Recently Crossroads Urban Center joined with other organizations in challenging Gov. Spencer Cox to call a special session of the Utah Legislature to solve this problem as quickly as possible. According to reporting in the Salt Lake Tribune, Cox responded to our straightforward request by stating, “The state has ample funding for hotel/motel vouchers, but currently there just aren’t enough rooms or caseworkers to accommodate these needs.”

We are skeptical that there is a shortage of empty motel rooms or that there are motel vouchers to meet the full need if more than 70 families with children are sleeping outside. During the coming winter months, we will work vigilantly to document whether all families children that need shelter are actually able to get indoors. We will also work with elected officials to promote lasting solutions so that children are not sleeping outdoors.

There are two big things that can be done in Utah to prevent infants, toddlers and other children from sleeping outside in future winters. The first is to purchase a motel in Salt Lake County and convert it into a second family shelter.

Back in 2017, when children were removed from the old shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, we knew there would not be enough beds at the new family shelter for all the families that were experiencing homelessness at that time. The solution we came up with for this shortfall was to issue motel vouchers for families when the family shelter was full. As we now need 70 or more motel voucher to get all homeless children out of the cold, the time has come to purchase a motel so that we can provide better services to families than is possible when they are being moved every week from one motel to another.

The second big thing that can be done to ensure all children have a place indoors to sleep is to invest in what we like to call “Family Supportive Housing”.

Out all of the 2,237 children who have been homeless this year there are 212 who have been homeless for nine months or more. Many of these children are members of families that have been homeless for more than two years. Permanent Supportive Housing is the intervention that evidence shows is the best way to move adults with disabling conditions and extensive histories of homelessness out of homelessness.

Crossroads Urban Center has championed funding for Permanent Supportive Housing for childless adults for many years, but we feel that families with children need a different package of services than single individuals need. This is why we are advocating for the creation of 150 units of Family Supportive Housing that can connect children with high quality preschool and parents with healthcare, adult education, job training and vocational rehabilitation services.

It is a sad fact that our community has become increasingly comfortable with seeing childless adults sleeping outside during the winter. During the past seven years the number of people found sleeping outdoors in Utah during the annual Point in Time Count in January has quadrupled. We cannot become complacent about children sleeping outdoors.

We challenge state and local elected officials and Utah’s philanthropic leaders to look at the data about child homelessness and support the solutions we are proposing. The last time children were turned away from shelters in Salt Lake County was 1998. If we invest now in a second family shelter and Family Supportive Housing for the most vulnerable families experiencing homelessness, we can prevent it happening for another 20 years.

Bill Tibbitts | Crossroads Urban Center

Bill Tibbitts is deputy executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, Salt Lake City.