“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
Erin Mendenhall no longer feels quite so alone.
The mayor of Salt Lake City was happy to hear recently that another mayor, Millcreek’s Jeff Silvestrini, has stepped forward to offer an unused library building in his town as a cold-weather overflow shelter for homeless people this winter.
For the last few winters, finding and staffing such a necessary facility has been Mendenhall’s job. Sometimes it didn’t get done until the snow was being plowed. And, as she told The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board Wednesday, it was good to see that someone else was ready to take on some of the responsibility.
“It’s the first time we weren’t leading that conversation,” Mendenhall told the board.
The fact is that the mayor of Salt Lake City, this one and all that come after, will always have to lead the conversation about homelessness. But they can’t be expected to do it all alone.
She, like the rest of us, still suffers from the fact that state leaders moved in, closed and demolished the old Road Home shelter on Rio Grand Avenue and expected three, smaller, underfunded “resource centers” to take up the slack. That was never going to work.
Leaders of other cities, of Salt Lake County and — in the person of Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s homeless services coordinator — the state are coming together to collectively grasp that the build-up, tear-down approach to winter shelter for the homeless is not a sustainable way to approach the problem any more.
Pushed by Mendenhall at one end and the Utah Legislature at the other — the latter with both the authority and the funds to get everyone’s attention — officials in Salt Lake County and beyond are accepting that they all have roles in facing a problem that knows no political boundaries. A problem that is caused by economic inequality, low wages, high rents, rapid development, as well as, in many cases, mental illness and impairment and substance abuse.
The week before, the Utah Homelessness Council divvied up the $55 million allocated by the last session of the Legislature, spreading it over 1,100 new or repurposed affordable housing units in six counties.
And Tuesday, Mendenhall, members of the Salt Lake City Council, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Niederhauser stood shoulder to shoulder to launch the process of spending $6 million in city funds toward another 400 permanent or transitional beds to be ready when the Millcreek winter shelter closes in the spring.
Nobody, least of all Mendenhall, is ready to raise the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
The city and the county still need more affordable and deeply affordable housing. The state is going to have to spend a lot more than $55 million — in direct appropriations or in tax breaks to developers.
It is, and always will be, more than bricks and mortar. Given the number of people who are homeless due to addiction, mental illness or mental limitations, there will always be a need for what are known in the profession as wraparound services. Which means professional staff, in some cases available 24/7, providing case management, dealing with crisis situations, enforcing rules and, hopefully less often, calling in law enforcement.
Missing from this mutual admiration society of various government officials are the voices of the actual service providers, the Road Home and Volunteers of America and other nonprofit groups that actually operate the service centers and will be called upon to run the Millcreek shelter and other projects going forward.
Their lived experience has not always been appreciated, or fully paid for, and their evaluation of how well things are going will be necessary for the public to judge the success or failure of our efforts.
Mendenhall credits Niederhauser, who came to his new job after a stint as president of the Utah Senate, with learning about the complex issues surrounding housing and homelessness.
“Wayne is bringing a new urgency to the conversation,” she said. “I credit Wayne Niederhauser for taking off whatever lenses he had as a state senator.”
The lens Niederhauser had as a leading member of the Legislature was how to get money for programs and plans he favored. It was, at the time, the only discernible reason for giving him the job, seeing as how social services generally and homelessness specifically were not really in his portfolio.
The $55 million in state money the homelessness council allocated recently was $70 million less than Gov. Spencer Cox had requested. And even that amount was less impressive than it might appear, given that it came, not from state coffers, but from an anti-pandemic act of Congress called the American Rescue Plan.
The Legislature can afford to allocate more funds, a lot more funds, for building and repurposing but also for staffing and security to help the homeless and, at the same time, improve the quality of life for the rest of us.
The state is sitting on a bank account with a surplus expected to top $1 billion. Rather than follow through on its knee-jerk inclination to cut income taxes, again, an action that might give the average Utah family enough money for two or three tanks of gas, allocating the money necessary to meet the needs of services for the homeless would do infinitely more good. For everyone.