Andrew Johnston: Why a state of emergency for homelessness in SLC doesn’t make sense

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s declaration of a “state of emergency” on homelessness last month could make a difference for his city’s homeless residents.

A “state of emergency” declared in Salt Lake City now, however, would not only fail to meet the criteria set by Utah law, it would not create any new authorities or free up a single dollar to aid in our homelessness work.

Like every state, Utah has a law that defines what qualifies as an emergency and how a state of emergency may be declared. While Colorado’s law is quite broad, Utah’s is very narrowly defined and limits its usage to preparing for and responding to attacks, internal disturbances, natural phenomena or technological hazards.

State law is very specific in how each of those four situations are defined and our attorneys determined that the statewide homelessness crisis happening in Salt Lake City would not qualify right now.

In both January 2020 and December 2022, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was able to declare a state of emergency on homelessness because the criteria for “Natural Phenomena” includes the word “storm.” The abnormally blustery winter and frigid temperatures met the state’s definition of a “storm,” allowing the mayor to declare a state of emergency and quickly override city zoning in order to get more people indoors.

While the statewide homelessness crisis our community is facing is clearly both a public health emergency and a humanitarian emergency, it does not meet the state’s definition of “disaster” or “emergency.”

But even if mayors in Utah could legally declare a state of emergency for homelessness, its value would be purely symbolic.

States of emergency typically give mayors increased executive powers and access to emergency funding from the state or federal government, defraying costs that would normally be spent mitigating emergencies like the COVID pandemic and our recent spring flooding.

But I want to be very clear here: No such federal or state emergency funding exists. Not even for Denver.

If declaring a state of emergency on homelessness could bring additional investment into Salt Lake City, we would be first in line to try to access it.

The enhanced executive powers don’t create a net gain today, either. Current projects related to affordable housing and homelessness are already proceeding as fast as is possible and would not be expedited. The current City Council is a strong, full partner in this work and is not preventing any necessary steps from happening. And if we were to do something similar to what Mayor Mendenhall did in 2020 by using an emergency order to open a city-owned building to shelter the unhoused, the doors to that building would close as soon as the executive order expired, leaving our city back at square one without a long-term tangible solution to unsheltered homelessness.

If it were legal, declaring a state of emergency on homelessness might be good politics, but in Utah it would result in no actual progress.

Instead we should be doubling-down on the real progress we are making right now with our partners to build beds for our unsheltered residents; to expand access to mental health and behavioral services; and to reform our approach to criminal justice with regard to homelessness. Homelessness is incredibly complex. There are no easy solutions.

But because of the unprecedented partnership now happening between Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the State of Utah, the service providers and our neighboring cities, we have 500 permanent supportive housing beds in the pipeline right now, and we’re on track to meet our goal for 600 new emergency shelter beds in the county this winter.

Because of this partnership, other cities in the Salt Lake Valley have stepped up to host a winter overflow shelter and State Homelessness Coordinator Wayne Neiderhauser stepped up to work on bridging a substantial funding gap.

This coordination and coalition-building on an issue that is bigger than any one city alone is what has been needed all along.

The rest is simply smoke and mirrors.

Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston is the director of homeless policy in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office.