Utah homeless policy threatens a return to overcrowded shelters, Editorial Board writes

Service center model is doomed to failure without more deeply affordable housing.

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Hotel California, The Eagles (1977)

Utah elected officials were full of hope and promises in 2019 when they moved to tear down the old Road Home homeless shelter on Rio Grande Avenue and replace it with three “homeless resource centers” in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.

The idea was that no neighborhood would be the community’s single focus of (wholly inadequate) services for the homeless and no one would have to put up with the crime and unpleasantness associated with it.

But unless the Legislature and Gov. Spencer Cox are prepared to do a lot more — which, frankly, means spending a lot more — the result is about to be a loss of hope and a broken promise that threatens to recreate the squalor of the old shelter, if on a smaller scale, in several different locations.

Sitting on a surplus of $2 billion, including an infusion of some $1.4 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the Legislature agreed to part with just $55 million for homeless services and to create some truly affordable housing. That’s less than half of the $128 million proposed in the governor’s budget, and not nearly enough to avoid a failure of the whole resource center plan.

There has been some good news, with Utah’s robust philanthropic community stepping up here and there to provide services and housing. The latest bit of hope was announced Thursday, when Kem and Carolyn Gardner announced a gift of $5 million toward the new receiving center for mental health and substance abuse patients who need immediate attention. That is part of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, launched with a $150 million donation from the Huntsman Foundation in 2019.

When the three homeless resource centers were created, over some objections of local residents and city officials, their mission statement was not to run more warehouses but provide active services that would do a lot more than prevent the homeless from starving and freezing to death.

They would help each homeless human being deal with whatever problems had brought them, acquaint them with whatever government services, disability or veterans benefits, health care, including mental health, treatment and move them into whatever level of permanent housing they could manage.

But the service centers are full and are likely to stay that way because, even when clients and staff succeed at turning lives around, there is a serious shortage of permanent housing for the formerly homeless to move into. A community where the vacancy rate for rental housing is 2% and rents climbing at 10% a year, and where the majority of the many housing complexes going up around the valley are aimed at high-end tenants, there is just no place for those served in the service centers to go.

The Legislature’s answer to this problem in the session just completed was the passage of HB440, which orders communities of Salt Lake County to cram more homeless people into more shelters, some of them seasonal, with threats of taking over the shelter-siting process and removing the population limits on each of the existing three resource centers if some other answer isn’t found.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, have both pointed out that lifting those limits would break the promise the state made to the affected cities and neighborhoods when those centers were built.

The grant program the Legislature did approve won’t be nearly enough to start a much-needed process of helping developers, some of them nonprofit, from creating some of the kind of housing that the once and the near homeless can actually afford to live in. The Other Side Academy has a plan for a village of 430 tiny houses in Salt Lake City, enthusiastically backed by the mayor, but the $20 million grant it was seeking from the state is unlikely to be awarded when the whole fund includes only $55 million.

The appointment of former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser as head of the state’s homeless services office made some sense because, even though he knew very little at the time about homelessness issues, he knew all there is to know about wringing money out of the legislative process.

Now that Niederhauser knows more about homelessness, the job falls largely to him to convince his former colleagues that they are not being serious about the problem unless they are willing to put more money and effort into creating the kind of housing that will keep people off the streets. The people of Utah should get ahold of their elected officials and give them the same message.