clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In our opinion: Winter is here, and Utah’s homeless need help

A homeless man bundles up near a fire 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

As temperatures drop, Utah’s homeless once again become vulnerable to the elements. Despite the construction of three new shelters, not enough beds are available to handle the need, and the pandemic, with its required social distancing, has made matters worse.

In recent days, Midvale’s mayor has fought efforts by the State Homeless Coordinating Committee to turn a La Quinta Inn east of the Midvale Family Family Shelter on 7200 South into a temporary shelter.

The inn’s owner, who has lost business because the pandemic reduced demand from travelers, supports the effort, but Mayor Robert Hale worries about the impacts to police and other public services from a hotel housing 140 homeless people.

Meanwhile, the committee is reviewing multiple sites in other cities that also could keep homeless people from freezing to death during the sub-freezing days and nights of a typical Utah winter. Last year’s winter shelter, in Sugar House, closed last April. It had been promised as only a temporary shelter.

A persistent criticism of the state’s new homeless initiative has been that the newly constructed shelters, or resources centers, as they’re called, would not be big enough to handle the humanitarian needs presented by harsh weather. They may not be large enough for the needs during good weather, as well, as the Wasatch Front continues its population growth.

Outreach teams from Volunteers of America-Utah recently reported an increase in street-level camp sites consisting of people who are newly homeless. They estimated the number of these at about 130 between March and June of 2020, which was about 80 more than the same time last year.

No program could eliminate homelessness completely, but the Wasatch Front could do a better job of planning for the increased need.

From the start, officials said hotel vouchers and other temporary solutions would handle the overflow. But the yearly scramble for these does not seem like the best solution.

The Deseret News recently published a two-part series looking at the unique approaches Austin, Texas, has presented for chronic homelessness. These include tent cities and more permanent tiny-home villages, where people are housed in small, easily constructed houses of about 150 to 300 square feet.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has shown interest in the small-home concept. She would like to do a pilot project that, if successful, could become more permanent.

But tiny homes would serve only the people on one end of the homeless spectrum. The other side is represented by the acute needs that present themselves on frosty nights, by people who often prefer to survive on their own, separate from organized shelters.

A recent report prepared for the Legislature by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, raised a number of concerns about how homeless services are governed. It described a confusing leadership structure, the lack of a statewide funding plan or comprehensive budget, communication problems and incomplete data.

Among other things, the report suggested the hiring of a chief policy officer, or executive director, to provide leadership, accountability and better coordination. State lawmakers are expected to consider bills to accomplish this during the 2021 session.

Perhaps the new chief executive could find more permanent solutions for winter shelter needs, as well.