Utah Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled a comprehensive $186 million plan for battling homelessness in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2025.

“One of the most complex problems facing our country, our cities and towns, and our people face today is homelessness,” Cox said at a press conference on Monday morning.

“We’ve seen, sadly, lawlessness, open drug use, untreated mental illness and the indignity that comes from tent cities in places across our great country,” he said, “and we are not going to allow that to happen here.”

Cox said he tasked his team to identify the significant gaps in the system that are failing people.

“Those with serious mental illness or addictions are ending up in jail for a night and then released right back onto the street instead of getting the help that they need,” he said, speaking at the outdoor space attached to the Atherton Community Treatment Center in West Valley City.

His plan addresses the shortage of beds, counselors and caseworkers, and affordable housing options, all of which are exacerbating the problem.

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The governor’s office worked with county and city officials to try to come up with a model to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring.” This proposal, copies of which were distributed at the event, was signed by Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Gov. Spencer Cox talks with Pamela Atkinson, adviser to the governor, after he unveiled the state’s fiscal year 2025 homelessness plan at a press conference at Atherton Community Treatment Center in West Valley City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Funding for emergency shelter, behavioral health and affordable housing

The first part of the strategy is investing in bed space since most shelters in Salt Lake City are at capacity nearly every night, he said. Cox recommended a $120 million investment to maintain and expand the emergency shelter system. The second is to prioritize the unaddressed need for behavioral and mental health services.

“The fact is that the system for getting help is complicated, and those in crisis need navigators to guide them on the road to recovery and housing,” the Republican governor said.

“Utah needs 8,000 additional behavioral health care workers to meet that demand. As a result, we’re recommending $8 million to alleviate the workforce shortages in our behavioral health system,” he said.

He said the proposal will also include funding for staffing the Atherton Community Treatment Center, where the modestly furnished rooms, each with two beds and a table, sit empty.

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The goal of the facility, operated by the Department of Corrections, is to help parolees adjust to life after prison, and “break the cycle of recidivism,” Cox said. He added he hopes to visit the facility when it is fully staffed.

Cox said there is a need for systems that allow individuals to receive extended behavioral health treatment, adding that the state has only about 300 hospital beds for 3.3 million residents to treat such patients.

He noted that state mental hospitals that existed nearly a century ago had problems, “but as the data shows, we effectively traded mental hospitals for prisons and living on the street.”

Cox proposed a one-time $10 million investment and ongoing funding of $641,000 to launch a home court, which will serve as a less restrictive civil option for those with mental illness.

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Finally, the governor recommended an additional $30 million for “deeply affordable housing,” for families making under $31,000 a year. He also requested $10 million for the Utah Housing Preservation Fund, which combats the decrease in affordable housing through private and public investments. This serves as the third leg of Cox’s campaign to alleviate homelessness.

The comprehensive proposal lays out a sequential intercept model that helps homeless individuals at every step as they move through the criminal justice system, from before getting arrested to transiting back to life after jail.

Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by local leaders and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson as he unveils the state’s fiscal year 2025 homelessness plan at a press conference at Atherton Community Treatment Center in West Valley City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox on running for reelection in 2024

The governor acknowledged the budget recommendations “are a heavy lift but we also know that they will save lives.”

“We think they’re the best ideas,” Cox said, “but I also want you to know that there are other amazing ideas that will come out over the 45-day legislative session as we head into January and February and March.”

After the press conference, Cox told reporters he plans to run for governor only one more time. “We have tremendous support all across the state. So, I welcome anyone who wants to get into this race,” he added.

State Rep. Brian King, a Democrat representing Salt Lake City, said Monday he will run for Utah governor in 2024.

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Of King, the Utah governor said they’ve disagreed on issues but also managed to work together. The race in 2024 “should be a competition of ideas.”

“Just because I’ve been here for four years doesn’t mean I should get a free pass,” Cox said. “So, I look forward to being held accountable and on running on my record as well.”

State Rep. Phil Lyman, a Republican representing southeastern Utah, is also running to unseat Cox.