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Will Utah finally get a homeless czar?

A new report on Utah’s homelessness says the situation has a “confusing leadership structure”

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Tents belonging to homeless people are pictured on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Tuesday published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In Utah, homelessness is still a problem and is still being managed inefficiently. Demand for shelter space is on the rise.

Is this where you expected the state to be more than three years after police swooped into the Rio Grande area of downtown and politicians declared an end to homelessness as we had known it? Looking back, is the following paragraph something you expected to read in a report in 2020?

“Despite a major influx in funds towards emergency shelters and resource centers, the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring is not being met.”

How about this one? After tens of millions of tax dollars and the construction of three new shelters, or “resource centers,” is the following something you expected to read?

“Compared to 2019, among the people in the state’s annual counts, 62% were experiencing homelessness and seeking shelter for the first time, an increase which suggests the need for identifying additional ways of preventing homelessness. Length of stay in shelters also increased.”

The latest report on Utah’s homeless services structure, prepared for the Legislature by the Kem C. Gardner Institute at the University of Utah, is an indictment of inefficiencies. It also is a testament as to how well-meaning, and even virtuous, groups can accomplish little if paralyzed by a lack of leadership.

Three years ago, I asked in this space why the state wasn’t appointing a homeless czar to oversee all these efforts. I thought the need was obvious, but the question turned out to be loaded.

When the former editor of the Deseret News opinion page, Hal Boyd, posed it to then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski in 2017, she answered with a terse question of her own: “Well, why do you think that would be more effective?”

When the idea finally made it into a bill during the most recent legislative session, it died amid angry exchanges in hallways. A leader of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (part of what this week’s report called “an amalgamation of well-meaning, but less than optimized entities”) said, “We meet every single week. We talk every single day about what’s going on.”

All of which was true, but meeting and talking isn’t enough. 

As the new report notes, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee has 13 voting members, including mayors, state department heads and others. The governor appoints seven non-voting members. But the homeless come in contact with other state agencies, including Public Safety and health officials, “that are working with the same populations, but not working in tandem towards achieving the same goal…”

This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to understand. Former Salt Lake County sheriff Jim Winder laid it out to the Deseret News/KSL editorial board three years ago. 

“In a perfect world, it would be kind of good to have somebody say, ‘OK, look, we’re going to be agnostic here. Your responsibility, Salt Lake County, is that and that and that,” Winder said back then. “We’re going to judge you based on that. And Salt Lake City, this is the county’s line, this is your line.”

The nation’s homeless czar, Robert Marbut, put it a little more bluntly recently at a meeting in Utah. “You will never get out of this box if everybody thinks they’re a leader.” 

The report calls it a “confusing leadership structure.” Among other things, it recommends instead forming a new Utah Homeless Council and appointing a chief policy officer, or executive director, or czar, if you will. Move the whole thing from deep within the Department of Workforce Services to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Maybe now, finally, the idea will take root.

Interestingly, news reports said no one on the current committee objected when the report was unveiled at a recent meeting. A state lawmaker, Sen Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, is planning to put this into a bill. 

To be fair, I should pause here and note that all has not been a failure since 2017. The coalition of politicians and others who tackled the situation downtown succeeded in ending what had been a dangerous and out-of-control situation.

While it would have been cheaper and more effective to build a single, flexible and all-encompassing new shelter in a secluded area outside the urban core, the decision to instead build three new centers was an improvement.

But the effort will remain incomplete, and ineffective, until someone is in charge, accountable for all the money and answerable for the overall progress, or lack thereof. No one should need another report to understand why.