Tribune Editorial: On homelessness, we have mostly dodged responsibility

Utah leadership must go big, and follow Gardner report recommendation on cabinet-level champion

Dealing with the tragedy of homelessness in Utah is not something that can be done around the margins.

We know. We’ve tried.

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We’ve swept neighborhoods for drug dealers and broken up encampments of the homeless on public health grounds.

We’ve rearranged the administrative box charts, raised a lot of private money and allocated millions of taxpayer dollars.

We’ve torn down Salt Lake City’s decrepit main shelter for the homeless and gone into debt to build three shiny new service centers, with a budget that does not leave nearly enough money to operate those centers as promised.

We’ve watched as private individuals, frustrated by the insufficient progress made by public officials, open their property for homeless encampments, and felt helpless as one woman trying to keep warm in a tent there died, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning.

What’s been turned out onto the street, along with thousands of our fellow souls, has been any acceptance or assignment of responsibility. Dodging the blame has been more important to many of our elected leaders than taking in the stranger.

It is time for the state to go big on providing housing solutions. To establish a meaningful and responsible structure, under an expert administrator who reports directly to the governor and who, working with a statewide council of experts and stakeholders, creates a system efficient, effective and transparent enough to justify much larger levels of investment from the state and from the many philanthropic organizations that would be happy to help if only they were confident that someone knew how.

As bad as it looks sometimes, we are still dealing with a population of a few thousand in a state of 3 million. We can do this.

A bill introduced Thursday by state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, takes a properly broad approach. House Bill 347 would, to a degree, codify some of the recommendations made last November by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The bill is a good start, establishing a state office of homeless services with a director and a council of stakeholders.

But it misses the mark on a couple of key points.

The Gardner analysis, commissioned by the Legislature, found that a confusing system of service providers and government bodies would best be improved by hiring a director who would work directly under Gov. Spencer Cox. Eliason’s bill, unfortunately, tucks that function away in the state Department of Workforce Services, a move that gives the governor too much deniability as it implies that the homeless are no more than an under-utilized source of labor rather than human beings in the most desperate of circumstances.

HB347 also would undermine the successful and humane approach to homelessness known as Housing First. That’s the idea that all the factors that lead people to homelessness, and make it all but impossible to get out of it, are best dealt with by first providing secure shelter and only then working to deal with whatever social, medical, emotional issues are faced by each person in those circumstances.

And even the best governance plans and theories will fall short if the state doesn’t come up with the money needed to turn ideas into action. Utah is blessed with a large and activist philanthropic community, which will come through if they know their dollars will matter.

The homeless are not to be seen as failures who must repent the error of their ways before they are worthy of assistance. They are human beings who need help, for their good and for the good of us all.

The Legislature should see Eliason’s bill and raise it.

Place the homeless services director on the governor’s doorstep. Bring in all the stakeholders, empower them to do what they know how to do, given the resources, so that the taxpayers and the donors can feel confident that the problem is, as much as humanly possible, being addressed and not, like the next homeless encampment, just forced to move down the road.