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In our opinion: Are Utah's homeless efforts still on track?

A homeless man walks near Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
A homeless man walks near Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
Deseret News

There is understandable and justified frustration over delays in the construction of new shelters and the completion of contracts for services for Utah’s homeless population, but the paramount question now is not whether the process is necessarily on time, but whether it remains on track.

Delays in big and complex projects are not uncommon, but there are legitimate concerns whether those delays are emblematic of a larger problem — the lack of a coordinated and strategic approach to the array of different projects, policies and programs in play to address both short-term and chronic homelessness.

Those in charge of the process need to accept accountability and give demonstrable proof they are capable of executing on an overall plan in which public and private interests have invested considerable amounts of time, energy and money.

The failure to meet a June 30 deadline for the opening of a new men’s shelter in South Salt Lake, and the closing of the existing downtown shelter, has led to some public finger-pointing among some key stakeholders. The Pioneer Park Coalition, a principal advocate in the campaign, has openly questioned whether leaders trusted to address the problem “have let us all down.”

That assertion may be a bit harsh, and a bit premature. The Utah Department of Workforce Services, which is helping to coordinate transition to the new shelters, promises the delays will not result in critical problems and that the parties involved are on task. Yet, nagging questions remain about the effectiveness of the architecture of leadership over the process, which involves a variety of different organizations and agencies, not all with the same principal agenda.

A legislative audit late last year revealed a lack of a strategic plan and measurable goals in the work of the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee. As a result, the Legislature passed a measure outlining several methods of ensuring accountability and monitoring the execution and outcomes of the various projects involved in the state-backed anti-homeless campaign.

The six months that have since passed may be too short of a period in which to produce a fair report card. But the exasperation of the Pioneer Park Coalition and others is an indication of a lingering lack of confidence in the planning and execution efforts.

At this point, we would encourage the benefit of a doubt. The process is complex and unwieldy. While some parties are focused on the elements of guaranteeing adequate short-term shelter — particularly before winter arrives — others are focused on treatment and rehabilitation programs, while still others are dedicated to creation of more available housing.

It has become common among cities nationwide facing similar problems to get wound up in a philosophical debate over whether treatment for addiction or mental illness should precede the process of moving clients into permanent housing. While some argue that people suffering from the underlying causes of homelessness aren’t ready for permanent housing, the advocates of a “housing first” approach argue that treatment is more effective once a person or family has found stable, long-term domicile.

All sides have good arguments. All are sincere in their perspectives and are undoubtedly committed to the larger cause. What needs to be seen, and soon, is evidence they are working together in an efficient and well-managed way to see to it that ultimate solutions are in place in a timely fashion, and that delays in the process do not fester to the point of becoming the norm.