“When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”
— H.L. Mencken
Utah’s political leaders enjoy solving the problem of homelessness so much that they have done it several times.
The newest honest-to-goodness, we-really-mean-it-this-time solution to homelessness was presented the other day by the widely respected policy wonks at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
The report’s target audience includes both the Utah Legislature and the community of philanthropic donors, both of which will have to support any effort to make homelessness, in the measured words of the report, “rare, brief and nonrecurring.”
Natalie Gochnour, director of the Gardner Institute, stresses that the report is about governance, not about funding. But the fact is, as the Bard of Baltimore said, it’s about the money. It’s always about the money.
Money that will, if wisely spent, repay itself many times over in reduced stress on the criminal justice and health care systems, protecting property values and easing basic human suffering.
Previous efforts to cure, or at least reduce, homelessness in Salt Lake City and Utah have often drawn a lot of public support and been able to count some real and significant progress.
But from the militarized Operation Rio Grande to the creation of three shiny new (and underfunded) homeless resource centers to replace the decrepit Road Home shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood, initial victories soon gave way to the stubbornness of the problem.
The flaw in all of those plans and programs comes down to an inability to follow through, and that comes down to a shortfall of funding.
The three new homeless resource centers opened carrying millions in debt. The agency contracted to run one of them, Catholic Community Services, bailed within a few months when it became clear that state financial commitments were far short of what would be needed and that staying in the game would drain the organization’s ability to maintain its other charitable activities.
State officials seemed gobsmacked by the realization, if indeed they have realized anything, that three resource centers worthy of the name — providing rehabilitation, job placement, detox and other services — couldn’t be run on a warehouse budget.
That’s why government officials and the philanthropic community have been bothered by ongoing requests from the service providers for levels of funding that everyone should have known all along would be necessary.
The Gardner report is useful as it lays out the unsustainable status quo, a confusing flow chart of responsibilities and reporting where it is difficult to figure out who is really responsible for what.
The report’s proposed solution centers on a new structure that includes a state homeless services (don’t call the person a “czar”) officer and a streamlined structure of governance and responsibilities. It is a plan that seeks to respect the knowledge and commitment of existing service providers, those who actually help people survive and escape homelessness, while making everything more transparent and accountable and making a single person ultimately responsible for holding it all together.
The hope the new report provides is that it could create a stable management structure that wins the confidence of those who will be called upon to fund and support all the efforts going forward.
Really dealing with homelessness will mean more than food, shelter and access to medical care. It will require more access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, to education and to health care beyond just emergency services. It will involve a large increase in the number of truly affordable housing units, which means dealing with sticky issues of zoning, NIMBYism and, again, funding.
The Legislature should accept the Gardner report and pass enabling legislation as soon as possible. And, having done that, lawmakers, and others, can feel better about putting up the money needed to truly deal with the issue.