Tribune Editorial: Utah homeless services remain adrift

(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.

The task of reducing the high levels of homelessness in Salt Lake County and the rest of Utah has been passed around from one public official to another, from one committee to another and split among multiple service providers.

Progress has been scant and it seems ever more than likely that the whole problem is only going to get worse as long as those responsible keep rearranging the deck chairs and are not willing or able to come up with the steady stream of funding that will be necessary to fulfill all the promises that have been made.

Just the other day, the Utah Homeless Coordinating Committee answered requests for only $12.5 million of a requested $16.5 million to catch up with funding shortfalls in various programs providing emergency services to the homeless. And they managed to scrounge up that much only by cutting funding for other, more long-term programs that, everyone once agreed, were necessary to truly reduce the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness, rather than just hide them.

With every passing day, it becomes more and more obvious that the plan to close — and, not long after, demolish — the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood and replace it with three, smaller resource centers was poorly thought-out and came with far too little funding attached.

The old shelter, when pressed, could make room for a little more than 1,000 people. The three new resource centers among them were capped at a total of nearly 400 fewer beds.

In theory, the reduced nightly capacity would not be a problem because the new generation of centers would be more proactive in helping the homeless to not just get in out of the cold but also deal with whatever economic, emotional and substance abuse issues they were dealing with and move into long-term housing.

But, for reasons that escape easy explanation, the state officials in charge of setting all this up failed to understand that three resource centers need to have, well, resources if they are to do more than give shelter from the storm.

And that was before anyone had so much as heard the word, “coronavirus.”

It only took a few months for Catholic Community Services, the service provider at one of the resource centers, to walk away from the plan because the funding provided by the state was far short of what was necessary. That put CCS in the unwelcome and unreasonable position of having to raise money to supplement the state’s funding. Which only damaged the agency’s other charitable programs.

Replacing CCS in the system will be difficult, if not impossible, until the committee, the Legislature and the governor (current and the next one) realize that even nonprofit service providers need the funds necessary to operate the program. Or do we think that running a service center for the homeless is such an honor that the nonprofits should be willing to pay for the privilege?

At current funding levels, the service centers won’t be able to pay case workers enough to afford an apartment at Salt Lake City rents. In other words, in order to work helping the homeless, you have to be willing to risk homelessness yourself.

Over the last few years, officials who tried to come up with new ways to face the problem have included then-House Speaker Greg Hughes (now running for governor), Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (now running for governor) and then-County Mayor Ben McAdams (now running for reelection to Congress). Now Hughes and Cox are among those who favor the creation of a homelessness czar to oversee the problem.

If it makes them feel better. But yet another organizational restructure won’t do what’s necessary unless it comes with a better understanding of how much the promised changes will really cost, and a willingness at the top levels of government to provide it.