Utah Homeless Services Board: Temporary shelter isn’t enough. To truly help the chronically homeless, we must focus on trauma.

For those who have suffered trauma and the ongoing deprivation of human dignity, we cannot expect them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” — first, they must be given boots before they are set along the path toward recovery.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless camp is pictured next to the Jordan River across from Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024. The city has initiated a general obligation bond project at the park, actively engaging with the community to gather ideas on enhancing the space.

Utahns take pride in our exceptionally high quality of life — a testament to the strength of our local communities. These communities form the bedrock of our success, providing safe and supportive environments. However, as Utah attracts new investments and sustained growth, we are faced with evolving challenges that jeopardize our state’s livability. Among these is the familiar issue of homelessness.

Homelessness isn’t limited to the Wasatch Front. During Utah’s 2023 point-in-time count, 3,687 individuals experienced homelessness from Logan to St. George when counted on a single night in January. Furthermore, according to the Utah Homeless Management Information System, nearly 30,000 individuals accessed some form of homeless services in 2023. These individuals are all familiar faces; they are our neighbors, our friends and our family.

Much like the rest of the nation, the challenges of homelessness in Utah extend beyond mere economic factors. While employment and affordable housing are crucial, they alone are not enough to solve the issue. This is, in part, because we must recognize and address the different types of homelessness affecting our communities — differentiation is vital for creating solutions that uplift those in need and provide them with the tools to achieve human dignity.

The Utah Homeless Services Board, created by HB298 in the 2024 General Legislative Session, is intended to be a nimble response to a rapidly evolving crisis. Today, we will meet for the first time to begin the next chapter in Utah’s efforts to end homelessness. As members of the Board’s executive committee, we are eager to share our vision.

We must start by making a clear distinction between the situational and chronic homelessness which affects Utahns. Not everyone who experiences homelessness falls clearly in one or the other of these categories, and may be somewhere in the middle, but understanding the core differences helps explain the need for unique approaches tailored to each person.

Situational homelessness typically results from sudden, significant life setbacks and can often be alleviated through interventions that include housing and supportive social services. The vast majority of Utahns accessing homeless services fall in this category, and we have great success in supporting their needs. Investments in affordable and deeply affordable housing since 2022 have created over 1,600 units statewide, which is a testament to the vision of our state leaders.

But for those facing chronic homelessness, traditional housing and services alone are not enough to help them recover housing stability and reintegrate into society. By maintaining a know-by-name system for the roughly 2,300 chronically homeless for whom this term applies, we can provide individualized care plans to help our most vulnerable heal and improve.

Utah needs a robust system of personalized care, with services and supportive housing, to properly address the crisis of chronic homelessness — resources that require deeper investments in proven solutions.

Our goal must be to create systems of support that propel individuals along the continuum of care, starting from street living to the ultimate goal of fostering human dignity. To do so, we have to understand that the core difficulty for those who are chronically homeless is trauma.

When our attention remains solely on the crisis and its demands on the emergency response system, resources tend to be channeled into crisis management rather than nurturing initiatives aimed at preventing homelessness or fostering healing and growth within subpopulations. Recognizing and addressing the pervasive traumas experienced by chronically homeless Utahns is pivotal in developing effective and compassionate solutions.

To truly help those in the greatest need, we must enhance human dignity, not just provide temporary shelter. This involves investing in deeply affordable and supportive housing, comprehensive wraparound services that support lasting wellbeing and stabilization — such services should address mental and behavioral health, help overcome substance use disorders, improve access to education and employment opportunities, foster connection to community and elevate individual confidence and capability.

Among our many existing shelter sites, we must ensure safe environments that advance stability and improvement, away from criminal exploitation. It is crucial to align our systems to promote responsibility and accountability, fostering an environment that supports resiliency and growth.

Individuals experiencing homelessness aspire to improve their lives and contribute to thriving, supportive communities. The spaces we construct for those currently facing chronic homelessness must be intentional and purposeful, distinct from those designed for individuals experiencing situational homelessness. For those who have suffered trauma and the ongoing deprivation of human dignity, we cannot expect them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” — first, they must be given boots before they are set along the path toward recovery.

By understanding the unique needs of each individual, we begin to tailor our crisis response to offer care that addresses the root causes of trauma. Fortunately, these objectives are captured in Utah’s Plan to Address Homelessness, which provides a unified, statewide strategic vision.

In this spirit, the Utah Homeless Services Board begins its work.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Homeless Services Board) Randy Shumway

Randy Shumway is the first Chair of the Utah Homeless Services Board.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Homeless Services Board) Wayne Niederhauser

Wayne Niederhauser is Utah’s State Homeless Coordinator.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Homeless Services Board) Erin Mendenhall

Erin J. Mendenhall is the 36th mayor of Salt Lake City.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Homeless Services Board) Spencer P. Eccles

Spencer P. Eccles is Managing Partner and Co-Founder of The Cynosure Group.

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