Tribune Editorial: State still blind to the real cost of homeless services

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Housing Stability Supervisor Tyler Riedesel sets up his desk at the new MenÕs Resource Center (MRC) in South Salt Lake, Nov. 5, 2019. The MRC, operated by The Road Home, was built to meet the needs of single men experiencing homelessness, providing a safe place to stay and multiple on-site resources to help them to move into housing. It is the largest of the three new Homeless Resource Centers built to replace the downtown Salt Lake Community Shelter. The 77,461 square-foot MRC has expansive common areas, secured fencing and gates, all hours security, smaller dorms, sleeping space studio rooms for especially vulnerable men, and more restrooms and showers, including private and gender-neutral restrooms. Additional amenities include a computer lab, free laundry and an enclosed outdoor courtyard. Men staying in the MRC will be served three meals a day including two hot meals brought in by Catholic Community Services.

Far too many of the people who should be paying for the new model of services to the homeless in Utah are less concerned with ameliorating the problem than they are in avoiding the blame.

The blame for a failure that is inevitable if the state isn’t willing to come up with a lot more money.

It began in 2017 with a $67 million effort tagged Operation Rio Grande. As the military-style code name suggests, the approach was largely an armed invasion of the neighborhood around the old Road Home homeless shelter on Rio Grande Avenue west of downtown.

The plan included some additional services to the homeless, destitute, mentally ill and drug dependent. And it was clearly justified by the troublesome growth of not just camps of unsheltered people, but also an open-air drug market that preyed upon, and hid within, that sad population.

Nobody claimed that that would be the end. But it was an awfully expensive beginning.

Then came the plan to replace the old shelter with four — no, make that three — shelters — no, make that resource centers — to better serve the homeless population in a cleaner, safer environment.

It is a system that is to go beyond mere shelter to the provision of the many kinds of services needed to move people off the street, through the resource centers and into some kind of permanent housing, either independent, with permanent supportive services, or something in between.

It’s a good idea.

Or it probably would be, if the state agencies and officials who put it together were willing to come up with a realistic amount of money to run it. And to provide the stock of affordable housing that will be necessary if the services available in the service centers are to mean anything.

The leader in the beginning was Greg Hughes, then speaker of the Utah House, now a candidate for governor. He was the public face, and the fundraiser, for the initial crackdown on the neighborhood.

Then the job of coordinating all the moving parts fell to Spencer Cox, the lieutenant governor, and candidate for governor. It was on his watch that the new resource centers opened to much acclaim.

And with what Cox and everyone else knew, or should have known, was a significantly underfunded budget.

How underfunded? Well, the system is already running an annual operating shortfall of nearly $3 million, not to mention the $17 million debt still hanging on the balance sheet of Salt Lake County from the $63 million it cost to build them.

That was enough of a fiscal disconnect to cause Catholic Community Services, which had been contracted to run one of the resource centers, to cancel its contract mere months into the new regime.

The top dogs basically ignored the warnings of the service providers and others, warnings that are getting louder as the centers get up to speed, that you cannot run a service-based system on a shelter-based budget.

The latest attempt to beat the homelessness problem into submission is a bill in the Legislature promoted by state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, and candidate for Congress.

Her HB394 would rearrange the bureaucratic deck chairs, provide a pittance of new money that would all go to another layer of staff, and basically neuter the council of local officials and service providers that are now making progress in favor of a single homelessness czar.

It would also push service providers to take a counterproductive and — frankly, mean-spirited — approach of demanding that those in need of housing first submit themselves to some variety of rehabilitative services before they are placed in any kind of shelter.

That’s an approach that those who really know about life on the street know won’t work. But if your approach to homelessness is to provide more sticks and fewer carrots, it might sound nice and tough.

Now would be a really good time for Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t running for anything, to cut through the politics and posturing, allow Cox to shift his attention to his other three jobs, and push through a realistic budget for the resource centers and find a way to greatly boost the amount of affordable housing this valley and this state desperately need.