Facebook Twitter

Opinion: The Utah approach to homelessness — We see human beings in need of help

Utah is one of the few states that sees the problem as a statewide issue that affects everyone. New funding directed toward affordable housing and homeless units is the latest example of this.

SHARE Opinion: The Utah approach to homelessness — We see human beings in need of help
State and local leaders announce a plan to add more emergency shelter beds for the homeless in Utah.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s chief homeless services coordinator, Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, and Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homelessness policy and outreach, back row left to right, listen as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall backs a call to add more than 300 additional emergency shelter beds to Salt Lake County’s homeless system during a press conference outside the City-County Building on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Operation Rio Grande, the 2017 push by several jurisdictions to clean up the area around the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City and to create new resource centers and a new initiative to fight homelessness left much to be desired.

The new resource centers are small, for one thing, having been based on a timeline for transitioning people out of homelessness that has proven to be too optimistic. The concentrated police presence that launched the effort in 2017 was initially effective, but there are other concentrations of encampments and health and safety concerns in other parts of the Salt Lake Valley.

Still, the effort succeeded in one important way. It was the first official acknowledgement, by state politicians and leaders from several cities, that homelessness, and the resources needed to address it, are not a Salt Lake City problem alone. That has infused the effort with a genuine sense of long-term hope.

First, the state created a Utah Homeless Council and installed former state Senate president Wayne Niederhauser as the homeless services coordinator — the point person who is accountable for the state’s efforts and reports directly to the governor. 

Now, the state is ponying up some real money —$55 million in state funds for 1,078 affordable housing units, including 529 for the homeless statewide. Adding to this effort, Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall has proposed $6 million in grants to be used for 400 units of transitional and supportive housing that is anticipated to be ready by April.

Also, a plan is underway to add at least 340 more shelter beds with winter approaching.

Mendenhall told us she felt the inclusion of Niederhauser and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and the multilevel government involvement in the funding initiative was a “phenomenal step forward.”

“I can’t tell you how transitional of a sea change it feels to not stand alone at a microphone to talk about homelessness,” she said.

The mayor also expressed hope in the efficacy of the new effort. 

“The fact that we were talking about permanent housing and, to some degree, potentially transitional housing is a much better place to be than simply more shelters,” she said. This, she added, “acknowledges that there has been, since the downtown shelter closed in 2019, a deficiency in the system.” The number of new units made available is about the same as that deficiency, she said.

The mayor emphasized that most people who experience homelessness are able to resolve their problems and transition back into mainstream society with help. The chronically homeless, and those who refuse sheltered care or suffer from debilitating mental illnesses or emotional trauma, remain a relatively small group that causes high impacts on society and requires high needs. 

These are the people who become the faces of homelessness to many downtown visitors, as do panhandlers who, in many cases, have places to stay and should be considered in a separate category.

Homelessness is a vexing issue for cities from coast to coast. Some jurisdictions try to sweep the problem away or pass laws making it easy to harass those who are in need. Utah, thankfully, understands that the homeless are human beings who, for a variety of reasons, can no longer provide for themselves. The state worries more about helping these people than about attracting out-of-state homeless people through a successful program.

The problems inherent in homelessness are many, and varied, and require a variety of solutions. Utah is known as a leader in volunteerism and charitable service. Church groups often volunteer at shelters or perform other acts of day-to-day service. This eagerness to help needs to be a part of the community’s united effort to help the homeless; its neighbor helping neighbor, not just government intervention.

The unfortunate truth for politicians is that homelessness will never be completely eliminated. However, the problem can be minimized, and efforts to transition people back into a housed status can bear fruit with the right amount of resources, and with a commitment that lasts much longer than the tenure of today’s leaders.

Utah’s state and city governments should be applauded for directing substantial funding to programs that, if administered correctly, could make a real dent in the problem. Most of all, they should be applauded for their statewide commitment to a problem that has been too often viewed as something that concerns the capital city, only.