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In our opinion: Utah needs a director of homeless services

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Awate Oliver, 19, left, and Sara Entwhistle, 30, who are homeless, talk as Entwhistle clears snow from the sidewalk where many people who are homeless are camping along 500 South at Library Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When asked how Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts are going, few residents may emphatically say the situation is “1,000 times better,” but that’s the report from Robert Marbut, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It isn’t much of an exaggeration, either. Residents will remember a central homeless shelter and its surrounding area in downtown Salt Lake City that, even a few years ago, was a hotbed for crime, violence and drug use. An audit of the shelter performed in 2018 found “troubling allegations regarding drug use, safety concerns, poor health conditions and mismanagement.” In one report, a man arrested inside the shelter was found carrying a loaded gun and drug paraphernalia.

Marbut’s praise, then, may only emphasize how bad the situation used to be. Taking the next step for Utah — delivering efficient solutions that truly lower long-term homelessness rates — will require defined leadership from a state-level director. That position ought to have enough autonomy to hold service providers accountable to taxpayers and inject the system with vision and planning.

In response to the ugly scenes of 2017, local officials and stakeholders were right to crack down on crime and distribute those seeking homeless services among three separate locations, reducing the likelihood bad actors could prey on such a vulnerable population.

The separate site model can work, Marbut told the Deseret News Editorial Board on Tuesday, but it comes with extra variables. Services get duplicated, for one thing, increasing costs and necessitating added layers of coordination. 

It complicates data sharing, too, which is one of the most valuable components of accountability. Accurate information must be shared, not only between resource centers, but with state agencies and other local services. Here, Marbut says, Utah is a step ahead by recording its data in a central location, but how effectively is that data being used? The 2018 audit noted, “Although we found no shortage of information about client activities and the services provided to them, we did not find the data to be of much use in terms of monitoring program outcomes.” 

Standard metrics for success are still hard to come by: How many people exit the system? What is the recidivism rate? Where are people five years from now?

More importantly, who should Utahns question to find those answers?

Three years ago, we asked who was in charge of Utah’s homelessness efforts. Today, there still isn’t a clear answer. “There’s no chain of command; there’s no understanding,” Marbut says of the state’s organization.

For a time, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes emerged as de facto leaders in the Operation Rio Grande initiative, but all three have moved on to new political aspirations. The complexity of coordinating homeless services and implementing long-term solutions demands more than transient politicians can offer. 

Local leaders deserve credit for improvements to the safety and security of Utah’s homeless population in the past three years, but that effort now craves clarity and accountability, the sort of outcomes only a dedicated leader can provide.