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Utah has a ‘housing crisis’ in a lack of affordable homes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Homelessness continues to be an issue for many Utahns, but community leaders believe it is because there is a dearth of affordable housing options.

A number of local and nonprofit programs are working to change that, but they need help from policymakers and acceptance from the public.

"It is important to have housing, it is the foundation for the strength we need to succeed," Tara Rollins, executive director at the Utah Housing Coalition, said during the annual People's Summit on Poverty sponsored by the Crossroads Urban Center on Saturday. She said a home provides people with stability, safety and built-in familial support, as well as opportunities to have pets and other belongings, and for children to get a stable education at community schools.

And while the idea of housing has shifted over the decades from being smaller and more affordable, to more of an investment, Rollins said having a place to call home still satisfies an important human need.

Pamela Atkinson, who advocates for the homeless, works tirelessly to increase options and access for them. She said the issue doesn't only affect Salt Lake County, but Utah and Weber counties, as well, where more needs to be done to help homeless individuals and families.

"When word got out that we were looking at alternatives for housing our homeless population," she said, "I got more hugs than I do normally from my homeless friends."

Many of Utah's homeless have mentioned to her that they "just want a room, with a bed, maybe a chair and a TV," Atkinson said, adding that they're happy to share other facilities with other residents. So, she's looking for funding and a site to build just that — shelters with 50 individual rooms in each.

"Our homeless friends have more potential than they know," she said.

The idea is that those who are homeless can somehow obtain affordable housing, they can then work on other aspects of their lives, including finding gainful employment and health insurance or conquering addiction and mental health issues.

Larry "Wolf" Winn, 48, said he's been homeless more than 20 years. But he's also been trying to get out of being homeless that long, as well.

"I'm trying to fix the problem, period," he said, adding that he needs a home to be able to get his business of selling tie-dyed clothing and providing "a hand up to the homeless" off the ground. Winn has developed a two-page proposal for the city that details "what homeless people want."

The existing shelters, he said, are replete with drugs and theft and he doesn't like to go there. He spends his nights on the street.

The city, however, has chosen to close the Road Home shelter in June of next year and will replace it with three facilities to provide housing for up to 700 people at each, which Atkinson said, isn't enough.

FILE - Homeless people leave the area around the Road Home shelter as police conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.

FILE - Homeless people leave the area around the Road Home shelter as police conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Housing is such a crisis," she said. "If we can't fix the housing crisis, we can't fix the homeless crisis."

Utah Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said that when gas prices go up, people have the option to drive less, but when housing prices increase, it's not like people can just find a cheaper place to live. And, housing costs are currently growing at twice the rate of income here.

He has proposed that the state borrow $100 million to incentivize developers and home builders to build the type of low-income housing that doesn't always provide a great return.

Many homeless qualify for housing vouchers to subsidize the cost of rent, but the $800 provided by the federal and state governments doesn't seem to cut it, with studio apartment rent hovering around $1,000 these days. And that is if the prospective occupant meets stringent requirements of passing background and credit checks.

Briscoe, a member of the Salt Lake Chamber's newly formed Utah Housing Gap Coalition, said the state anticipates needing 58,619 affordable housing options for people by 2020, and Utah is already short by about 40,000.

"We have a housing crisis in Utah," he said, adding that he believes housing is a fundamental right.

"We need every one of you to do everything you can do if this is that important for you," Briscoe told those gathered for the 15th annual summit. "Put your time and effort and your sweat and tears and prayers on the causes you are most passionate about. Just do something."