Editorial: Salt Lake City politicians feud over homelessness, but whose problem is it to solve?

SLC may bear the burden, but homelessness is a statewide problem demanding statewide solutions, the Editorial Board writes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Salt Lake City police chief Mike Brown, state homeless services coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other city and county officials announced plans of a coordinated response to address homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.

Given all the time and energy city officials in Salt Lake City and nearby municipalities spend talking about, arguing about and, sometimes, doing something about homelessness, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a problem to be solved at the local level.

There have been efforts.

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini bit the bullet and offered an empty library building as a winter shelter for homeless families, despite some loud local opposition.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council are putting up $6 million, split among three different projects, to provide enough of what’s called “permanent supportive housing” to get some 450 homeless human beings off the street and, if all goes according to plan, keep them there.

Mendenhall recently returned from a visit to Miami, Florida, where she, some of her staff, and Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness boss, apparently picked up some tips on how various agencies and charities can better reach out to one another to help more homeless people with less money.

Meanwhile, Rocky Anderson, who was the mayor of Salt Lake City for two terms ending in 2008, told us he was running to get his old job back. His announcement was a blistering denouncement of Mendenhall’s tenure in several areas, especially homelessness and a pledge to reverse the city’s apparent inability to keep up with homeless campsites and the crime that often accompanies both illegal camps and approved shelters.


The fact is, though, that Mendenhall and Anderson — and whoever else might be mayor of their city and several others nearby — can speak and work and argue and attack and claim and even accomplish things. It won’t be enough.

Homelessness is a statewide problem, demanding statewide solutions and, more bluntly, access to the state’s bank account.

In his 2023 proposed state budget, released Friday, Gov. Spencer Cox shows some hopeful signs of understanding the depth of the problem and the need for the state to step up and do its part.

The governor’s plan includes $150 million for what he calls various “housing strategies.” Of that, $100 million ($80 million of it from federal pandemic relief funds) would go to creating more of what people who know about these things call “deeply affordable” and/or “supportive” housing.

That’s on top of the $55 million the state allocated for such projects this year. And it could be a lot more if both the governor and the leaders of the Legislature weren’t so keen on giving Utahns $1 billion-plus in tax cuts, most of which will be too small to be felt.

Supportive housing is not only a permanent place to stay for those subsisting on very little income, and those who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or other problems. It is also active case workers to keep an eye on people, to hold their hands and connect them to other services and sources of income, so they don’t fall back into old, self-destructive ways and back out onto the street.

That absolute requirement for any housing assistance program worthy of the name means that, unlike some state projects, no governor can propose that we pour some concrete around some steel and call it good.

It might be better if we called it “deeply supportive housing.”

The services must be ongoing. Skilled and dedicated staff must be recruited and retained. Nonprofit organizations that are contracted to run the various services must have faith that their funding will be adequate and reliable. Philanthropic institutions, of which Utah is fortunate to have many, must have confidence that the money they contribute won’t be wasted when the state and its contractors lose interest.

Most, though not all, of the visible signs of homelessness are in Salt Lake City. This is always going to be the case, as that’s the hub of the state’s economy, legal and illegal, as well as of social and medical services and access to everything from housing to transportation to jobs. Mendenhall’s pleas for other cities to take on more of the load of serving and sheltering the homeless are understandable but not very practical.

But the capital city’s unavoidable draw of the homeless from other parts of the county, the valley, the state and beyond cannot mean that only the city, its residents, and its government, can be expected, all by themselves, to come up with the necessary plans and funds to get a better handle on the issue.

The state owes the city, as it was the state, with then-Lt. Gov. Cox in the lead, that bought, evacuated and demolished the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood and replaced it with three undersized and chronically underfunded service centers; service centers that would have probably been more successful if there was a lot more affordable, deeply affordable and supportive housing for clients to move onto.

Cox’s plan to fund supportive housing should be taken by the Legislature as a floor on which to build an ongoing and dedicated system to help all Utahns by helping the homeless.