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I’ve been asking this question about homelessness for years. Why can’t it be answered?

Tents are set up on 500 South by Library Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. With the cost of housing soaring and the population increasing, the homelessness problem in Utah isn’t going to solve itself, writes Jay Evensen.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Four years ago, Dr. Robert Marbut, who then was an author and consultant on issues related to homelessness, told me the Salt Lake area had one of the most “messed up” approaches to the problem he had seen.

He later became the nation’s homeless czar in the Trump administration. Now, as he returns to life as a professor and consultant, he again worries about the Wasatch Front, and for good reason.

Homeless encampments seem to be popping up with regularity. Health officials and police clean up one, only to see another begin somewhere else. One activist decided to let people camp in his front yard earlier this month, only to have a 45-year-old woman die there, possibly from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Marbut, a frequent visitor to the area (he was here two weeks ago), said this is a clear sign the system politicians and service providers set up in recent years is failing.

“Unless you’ve got your system correct, you’re always going to have encampments pop up,” he told me Wednesday. “It’s an indication the overall system is not working. We don’t need to overthink this. It’s not brain surgery.”

So what’s wrong?

I can answer that with another question. Who is in charge?

It’s a question I’ve asked several times during the last four years. The unstated answer that continually fills the void is, everyone and no one.

A State Homeless Coordinating Committee has 13 voting members, including mayors, state department heads and others. The governor appoints seven nonvoting members. But the homeless come in contact with other state agencies, including public safety and health officials, all dealing with the same people in different ways.

Does anybody really think that is a system geared for success?

State lawmakers have begun considering a bill, HB347, that might begin to solve this, depending on how behind-the-scenes negotiations go.

Utahns had better hope it goes well. With the cost of housing soaring and the population increasing, the problem isn’t going to solve itself.

The bill will succeed only if it creates an office to oversee everything — the shelters, the service providers and the budget — and puts someone in charge who reports directly to the governor. That was the recommendation of a report last year by the Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. It’s one Marbut wholeheartedly endorses.

He outlines three keys to success:

  • Appoint someone in charge who reports to the governor and no one else, bypassing all the bureaucracy in state government.
  • Give this person complete authority over strategy and implementation.
  • Reduce the layers of service providers and government agencies dealing with the problem.

The last one may be the biggest challenge. Well-meaning service providers, in any organization, are reluctant to cede power.

But, follow those three rules, Marbut said, and you will have “much better decision-making.” Don’t do it, and “you actually make things worse.”

Much has been written recently about people who prefer to live in tent encampments, or who think shelters are unsafe. Marbut acknowledges this, but he says that group should remain at about 10% to 19% of the total homeless population, if the system is working well. Fix the organization and the encampments will drop until they reach that kind of equilibrium.

Four years ago, a lot of people had hope we wouldn’t be in this situation today. Back then, Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood was being swallowed by crime. Much of it was due to criminals preying on the homeless who were housed at the shelter on that street.

The House speaker at the time, Greg Hughes, made this one of his top priorities as he opened that year’s legislative session. That culminated, later that year, in an effort to clean things up, involving several police departments and local governments. Three new shelters were built around Salt Lake County, each designed to handle different types of homeless people.

The cleanup worked, but the next step, the permanent establishment of a system that coordinates services, collects reliable data and helps many people regain their lives, has turned out to be much harder.

Maybe it’s true that it’s easier to clean up a neighborhood than to wade through the politics, reorganize a lot of well-meaning people and put someone in charge. But the stakes are too high, and too much money already has been spent, to let this fail.

The Salt Lake area may no longer have one of the most messed up homeless systems in the country. Whether it has a successful one, however, depends on what happens next on Utah’s Capitol Hill.