Tribune editorial: Utah’s government, private sector and predominant faith can pull together for our unsheltered population

The Utah Legislature did the math, faced the facts and came up with money and means to better shelter our homeless neighbors, cleaning up our streets and parks in the process.

In the end, it just didn’t add up.

Years ago, the state of Utah was tired of the clutter and crime that surrounded the big homeless shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood. It was unpleasant to be around, didn’t seem to be helping the homeless that much and was an impediment to a profitable redevelopment of the area.

So, in 2019, the state bought the shelter, tore it down, sold the land for development, and replaced it with three shiny new “resource centers” in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake. Those were supposed to do a better job, not just of keeping the homeless from starving and freezing, but of assessing the individual needs of every unsheltered human being, moving them through the system and into permanent housing.

Sounds good. But the new system started with a flashing red light.

The three resource centers had a combined 700 beds. That’s 400 beds fewer than were available at the old Rio Grande shelter. At a time when, because the total population of Salt Lake County was growing rapidly, and the cost of housing ever on the rise, we could expect the homeless population to soar as well.

Add to that the serious underfunding of the centers’ operations and the lack of new affordable and supportive housing for their clients, and the evidence of homelessness on the streets of the Capital City just kept getting worse.

So, in the session just ended, members of the Utah Legislature did the math, faced the facts and came up with money and means to better shelter our homeless neighbors, cleaning up our streets and parks in the process.

It was a remarkable accomplishment in a session otherwise marked by prurient priorities and distractions.

Lawmakers face the need for a new shelter

At the top of the list is a $25 million allocation for infrastructure that will include a new shelter operation of 600 to 800 beds. It is a necessary move that will ease human suffering as it makes it legal and ethical to enforce bans on camping in public places because there will be somewhere else for the homeless to go.

Added to the new camp of microshelters, which will soon grow from housing 50 people to 100 when it moves to its new location near 700 West and 500 South, it adds up to a huge step toward ending the annual do-si-do of finding extra beds for the homeless in the biting cold of Utah winters, closing them come spring, and looking for new shelter space the following fall.

State homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser now faces the job of finding a spot for the new shelter. Given that part of the problem for those out to help the homeless has always been that nobody wants them nearby, that may be a heavy lift.

There will be pressure to make it remote — not near residential, schools or retail property — and yet to make it accessible, so the homeless can get there, and get from there to transit, jobs, health care and other necessary things.

Lawmakers also approved a new streamlined management structure for homeless services, made it easier to commit the mentally ill for treatment without their consent and provide other services to those struggling with mental illness.

Another new law will also allow customers at state liquor stores to round up their purchases and give the money to homeless services. Which, given that alcohol often causes or exacerbates homelessness, is only logical and fair.

It helps, perhaps, the most of the legislative leaders behind the 2019 shift to resource centers have moved on, making it easier for today’s lawmakers to face that plan’s shortcomings.

Support from the rest of the community is needed, as well

It also helps that those outside the Legislature who were pushing for real solutions weren’t just the usual suspects of those who worry about the poor and dispossessed.

The shift was pushed by the downtown Salt Lake City business community, the Salt Lake Chamber and a group of private sector leaders calling themselves the Utah Impact Partnership.

The Impact Partnership, particularly, was in a position to promise some real philanthropic assistance for helping the homeless. But its members understandably didn’t want to follow through, with what’s become a $30 million pledge over two years, without some assurances that it wouldn’t be a worthless gesture toward a failing system.

Other local institutions should follow the Impact Partnership’s example. Most notably, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church, after all, has a stock portfolio that dwarfs the holdings of even Utah’s richest entrepreneurs.

Like other players, the church would reasonably be reluctant to shoulder the entire burden itself.

But with government, the private sector and our predominant faith all pulling together, Utah can be much more than the “weird” place Gov. Spencer Cox envisions. It can become a light onto the nation.