Three years ago, the politicians, philanthropist and activists who marshaled a cleanup of Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood and embarked on a change of strategy in dealing with homelessness talked about being driven by data. 

People were showing up again and again at the Road Home shelter without anyone keeping track of their progress or following up with a steady course of treatment and programs.

We are dismayed, then, to read the latest report this week on Utah Homeless Services, prepared for the Legislature by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. It describes a confusing leadership structure, the lack of a statewide funding plan or comprehensive budget, communication problems and, most concerning, incomplete data, as plaguing the state’s new approach to homelessness.

Report says Utah isn’t meeting goals to care for the homeless. Can that be changed?

Despite all the taxpayer money, the construction of three new shelters (or resource centers) and a lot of talk about matching needs with care, donors and politicians are concerned “the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring is not being met,” the report said. 

This is completely unacceptable. Its cause seems to be rooted in structural inefficiencies, and efforts to change this have been hampered by those who would protect their own turf.

We endorse the report’s six recommendations, especially those that would establish a new Utah Homeless Council and the appointment of a new leader who would be in charge of, and accountable for, it all.

Call this person a chief policy officer, an executive director or what you will. The term “czar” has been used often, but that trendy title implies a lack of accountability. This person needs to be the face of Utah’s efforts to operate an effective homeless strategy that could be the envy of the nation. 

We have long called for the creation of such a post as an appointment by the governor. A bill to create it died earlier this year in the Legislature amid opposition from some service providers who argued the current structure is working. Clearly, it is not.

The report says today’s structure is filled with “conflicts and inefficiencies” and suffers from a lack of transparency and effective coordination. It recommends moving the new structure to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, where it would have a higher profile, with the goal of moving it to a state department once the process becomes more functional.

Will Utah finally get a homeless czar?

The worry from the start was that the concentrated effort to clean the Rio Grande area and improve homeless services would be a momentary blitz that did a lot of good for a short time, then faded out of the spotlight as services returned to previous patterns.

For the most part, this has not been true. The structure put into place is a good one that offers a lot of hope. But without real leadership and accountability, it will fail.

The report’s statement from benefactors says, “Utah faces a critical juncture in homeless services and must get the next steps right.” That is correct.

We urge state lawmakers to finally pass a bill that restructures the system and puts a single person in charge of it all. We hope future reports tell of a system that is data-driven and effective in helping human beings regain productive lives.