Tribune Editorial: City, state and church leaders must do more for Utah’s homeless population

The city’s new mayor was right out of the gate with an emergency proclamation: Homelessness is out of control and business as usual just won’t do the job.

Things have to change. Red tape must be cut. Money must be spent. Government bureaucracies, business and charities must work together.

The human needs of the homeless must be met, because that’s the only way for the right of the rest of the community to be safe on their streets, at their businesses and in their homes to be realized.

Sound familiar?

Local leaders from Los Angeles to Portland to New York City have made similar statements. Last Tuesday they were joined by the newly inaugurated mayor of Denver, Mike Johnson, and his call for a mobilization of resources to move at least 1,000 of the Mile High City’s homeless into housing by the end of the year.

The lessons for Utah and Salt Lake City are, first, that ours is not the only metropolitan area facing this problem. And, second, that executive leadership must kick into a higher gear if anything is to change.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall may feel as though she has talked about or worked on little else during her term. But the community needs more fire, more focus, more leadership from her if things are going to get visibly better for the homeless and for the rest of us.

Our community should also expect more — a lot more — from its would-be spiritual leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Any organization named for he who called upon us to care for the least of these — and that also has a savings account expected to top $1 trillion by 2044 — could easily pay for just about everything needed to all but cure homelessness in its headquarters city and not miss the expenditure much at all.

Denver’s new mayor was a bit vague as to the details of how he will achieve his goals. He did say that raising the alert level could make the zoning and permitting processes move a lot more quickly, get public and private agencies to work more closely together and unlock money from the local, state and federal governments and private sources.

The lesson from Salt Lake City for the rest of the country is, well, good luck with that.

City, county and state governments hereabouts have put money and energy into the problem. The Utah Impact Partnership, a group of philanthropists, will match up to $15 million in state commitments and has already given millions. There is a will. More difficult is the way.

New affordable housing units, including some that include the necessary supportive services to not only get people off the street but keep them on the path to sheltered self-sufficiency when that’s possible — and ongoing support when it isn’t — are coming online.

But the supply for housing, affordable and supportive, continues to fall short of the need. The numbers of the unsheltered continue to rise.

In Utah’s fiscal 2022, there was a 10% jump in the number of people who found themselves homeless for the first time. That’s not as bad as the 14% increase of 2021, but enough to make it clear that the bucket we are trying to fill with housing and services still has a hole in it.

Gov. Spencer Cox this year asked the Utah Legislature for $100 million for the creation of affordable housing units. He got half of that.

All of that increases the misery felt by many of our neighbors, even as it makes many of our neighborhoods unwelcoming to business and to living.

It burdens our police, our jails and our emergency rooms with an expensive job they really aren’t that well suited to. It embarrasses us all with an apparent choice between tolerating unhealthy homeless encampments on streets and in parks or another round of heartless “abatements” that deprive many homeless of what little they have, destroying trust that community may have in any public officials and moving the problem down the street.

The Legislature did grant Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator, a million dollars to find a site for and set up an authorized camp site for homeless people, someplace that can theoretically be kept clean and orderly while giving those living in tents or under tarps an alternative to keeping one step ahead of government bulldozers.

Finding a place for such an enterprise that won’t draw an outcry from neighbors may be a tall order. Niederhauser will need Mendenhall to run some pretty aggressive interference.

Our community is still paying the price for the military-style Operation Rio Grande. That’s the 2017 state-led push to crack down on the illegal goings-on near the old Road Home shelter near Pioneer Park, gentrify the neighborhood, destroy that structure and replace it with three — much smaller and seriously underfunded — homeless “service centers.”

The need for mental health services, we all know, is key to solving the problem. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has taken a lot of heat for his program to force some homeless people into mental hospitals for sometimes extended stays to deal with schizophrenia and other problems. Critics on the right and left have decried the coercive nature of that approach.

But there are reports that the plan has saved some people from life and death on the streets, in part because the city is willing to pay for lengthy treatment programs rather than just warehousing the lost or rotating them through the system.

Again, it is some bold leadership from the mayor’s office, the place where the real work of government affects people’s lives most directly, that makes a difference.