SALT LAKE CITY — The day Utah’s largest homeless shelter shut its doors for the first time in more than 30 years, Jaron Taylor stood in the shadow the new South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center, looking up at its spotless windows and stain-free walls.
Taylor, who had come to the South Salt Lake center to get an assessment for a housing program, said he’d already been given a bed for the night.
Taylor once “had a life.” But when he came to Utah to help bury his mother, he said his father “wouldn’t let me have anything to do” with her estate, and he became homeless and addicted. After being robbed of “everything I own 20-plus times, I let it go,” he said. “I don’t care anymore.”
Taylor had mixed feelings about the new men’s resource center — a hulking, brand-new building in the middle of what was once an agricultural neighborhood in South Salt Lake.
“Change is difficult when you become complacent in purgatory,” Taylor said. “You’re just sitting there, floating and waiting for something good.”
Looking up at the center, Taylor wondered if the new facility was going to be that “something good.” He called it “beautifully set up,” but also a place with strict rules that in some ways made it feel like a “minimum-security prison.”
“It’s complicated,” he said. “We don’t want to be treated like we’re in prison. This is a homeless shelter to help us ... But it’s like I didn’t come here to be told what to do.”
Still, Taylor figured it was going to be an improvement to the downtown shelter, even if it’s managed by the same agency.
“The old Road Home, it was disgusting,” he said, noting there’s more counselors in the new resource center. “This new Road Home I believe is going to be very healthy and therapeutic for a lot of us.”
Utah’s yearslong move away from a central mega shelter
At its peak, the Road Home’s downtown shelter once housed up to 1,100 people, a population that over the years became more and more unmanageable as the surrounding Rio Grande neighborhood began to buckle.
It became a festering hotbed for drugs and crime. It quickly gained the reputation as the No. 1 area to avoid in Salt Lake City. Political heavyweights from state, city and county levels all came to agree: The downtown shelter needed to close, and Utah’s largest city and county needed a better way to help the needy.
A form of that discussion began more than five years ago, when former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams convened stakeholders to evaluate services and find consensus. That consensus was to create multiple, scattered homeless facilities with more focus on housing, drug treatment, mental health and other services.
That laid the groundwork for years more of heavy political maneuvers as city and county leaders pushed aside NIMBYism and sited three new, gender-specific homeless resource centers: two 200-bed centers in Salt Lake City and one 300-bed center in South Salt Lake. They were funded by more than $63 million in public and private dollars, including more than $20 million appropriated from the state.
While city and county leaders navigated their own political challenges, chaos around the Road Home’s downtown facility continued to fester. State officials, spearheaded by then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, stepped in, launching the controversial Operation Rio Grande in the summer of 2017. While the multi-agency law enforcement push to clean up the Rio Grande area received backlash from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which called it a “hammer” that treated people experiencing homelessness and drug addiction like “nails,” it helped bring the area back under control, clearing the way for a transition to the new system.
Fast-forward to Nov. 21. After years of controversy, design, a long construction season and permitting delays, the last of the new resource centers — South Salt Lake’s — was finished and taking in clients.
That day, the downtown shelter shuttered, marking a major milestone for Utah, its capital city and its most densely populated county.
Utah’s new homeless system
The downtown shelter closure capped off a massive shift toward what leaders say will be a housing- and service-focused homeless system.
The transition came after more than five years of discussion, planning and controversy fraught with politically tough decision-making. Yet some also saw an “unprecedented” level of cooperation between state and local leaders, despite political divides between the statehouse’s Republican majority and the Democrats who lead the city and county.
The move hasn’t come without challenges, including concerns over capacity and even some resistance from some of the homeless. And South Salt Lake leaders fought tooth-and-nail against the facility, leading to longer-than-expected approval to build and operate the center.
Salt Lake City’s Library Square has also become the new hotbed for drugs and on-street camping, but so far nowhere near what the Rio Grande area around the downtown shelter once was.
As leaders continue forward with full investment in this new system, working daily to iron out the kinks, they’re looking toward the future with optimism, confident the change will begin a new era for homelessness in Utah.
The question is, will Utah succeed in this grand experiment to house the homeless?
“I think it has to work,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said.
Cox, who is running to be Utah’s next governor, is the lead state official on homelessness as chairman of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee and a member of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the new resource centers.
“It can’t be worse than the alternative,” Cox said. “We’ve seen what the alternative leads to. The past practices of just warehousing people, not enforcing laws ... that leads to the tragedies at Rio Grande and the tragedies we’re seeing in Los Angelos and San Francisco.”
Utah’s statewide homeless population was 2,876, according to the 2018 point-in-time count reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s means about nine out of every 10,000 Utahns are experiencing homelessness. Of that total, only 420 people were counted as living unsheltered — sleeping outside or in their cars — statewide.
That pales in comparison to California and New York, states that have the largest numbers of people experiencing homelessness in the nation. According to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, using point-in-time data from a single night in January 2018, half of all people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. were in one of five states: California (24% or 129,972 people), New York (17% or 91,897 people), Florida (6% or 31,030 people); Texas (5% or 25,310 people), and Washington (4% or 22,304 people).
California and New York had the largest numbers of people experiencing homelessness and high rates of homelessness, at 33 and 46 people per 10,000. Nearly half of all unsheltered people in the country were in California (47% or 89,543).
Those places often garner the most national attention when it comes to homelessness. California, in particular, has caught the ire of President Donald Trump, who has suggested federal intervention is coming.
So when considering Utah’s much smaller homeless population, the Beehive State is obviously in a much better position than those other states, Cox said, but is not “immune” to the problem, especially as housing prices continue to climb.
So as Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the state enter a new era for homeless services, officials are hopeful for the future, confident there’s enough political will — combined with Utahns’ charitable nature — to sustain the new model.
Though there have been “bumps” along the way and kinks to work out, Cox said the new model “conceptually and logically” must focus on helping people.
“Our hope is that this will really make an impact and help change people’s lives for the better instead of just warehousing them,” Cox said. “I feel very confident that this is going to work.”
Can Utah be a national model for homelessness?
Utah and Salt Lake City once gained national attention for work on chronic homelessness — but those headlines propagated a myth that Utah had “solved” homelessness, and years later, the numbers didn’t hold up.
In 2015, state officials reported the state’s chronic homeless numbers had been cut by 91% over the previous decade, from 1,932 in 2005 to just 178 in 2015. The 91% figure took a life of its own, appearing in coverage touting Utah as a proven model for solving chronic homelessness in the Washington Post, NBC News and Los Angeles Times.
But it wasn’t what it seemed.
National media heralded Utah’s achievement in “winning the war on chronic homelessness” with it’s Housing First strategy, but even though most news outlets did mention chronic homeless people are a small subset of the overall homeless populations, headlines led to the inaccurate idea that Utah had fixed its homeless problem.
And years later — even as homelessness issues and crime around the Road Home’s downtown shelter reached boiling point — a state audit found that the statistic was “erroneously reported” and “those figures were inaccurate.”
”While the data presented shows a significant drop in the number of chronically homeless people, much of the decrease can be attributed to changes made in the methods used to count chronic homelessness,” auditors wrote.
That same audit found that even though more than $100 million had been spent in 2017 on direct and indirect costs associated with homelessness, state officials had trouble tracking Utah’s overall performance on homelessness due to poor data.
Nevertheless, the Housing First model that reduced Utah’s chronically homeless has still been heralded as a best practice — and Utah’s homeless system continues to place emphasis on housing. With the new centers came more beds for drug treatment and plans for more permanent supportive housing.
“We still believe in the Housing First approach,” said Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services. “We rely heavily on that model to help people get a better quality of life, so we feel good about that.”
In October, state officials unveiled their Strategic Plan on Homelessness, aiming to make “homelessness in all of Utah rare, brief and non-recurring.” The first “gap” identified in the plan is need for more affordable housing, permanent supportive housing and emergency beds, and the plan states Utah needs more affordable housing to successfully implement a Housing First approach.”
Last year, the Utah Legislature passed an affordable housing bill, but only after stripping it of the requested $24 million to fund programs. Next year the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, and co-chairman of the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability, plans to seek even more — to the tune of $35 million.
But after the state has pumped tens of millions of dollars into helping Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City revamp its system — including more than $67 million for Operation Rio Grande and $20 million for homeless center construction — how much of an appetite will lawmakers have to give millions more?
After last year’s gutted bill, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he believes an affordable housing appropriation will have priority, but it’s not clear yet how much will be funded.
“It’s a pretty big fiscal note,” Wilson said of the $35 million proposed. “I’m not sure we’ll have the resources to fund it at that level, but I think there’s a commitment from the Legislature to take a hard look at that to help find a solution.”
Homelessness — as it has been for the last several years — will continue to be a priority at the state level, Wilson said, but he also predicted a shift in the state’s roll as the transition into the new homeless resource centers solidifies heading into 2020. Operation Rio Grande’s funding will dry up in June, so Wilson said state officials will likely aim to return to more of a fiscal support role rather than the lead law enforcement agency in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
“That is not something that is sustainable, and so the baton needs to be passed back to Salt Lake City to manage law enforcement needs in the city,” he said, adding that he has “tremendous confidence” in Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall to “help manage that transition successfully.”
Wilson also said he has confidence in the new system.
“We couldn’t have closed the downtown shelter a day too soon,” he said. “Having new centers that are focused on helping people transition and becoming self-sufficient, that are geographically dispersed, that have more focus on housing, that have the support they need from government and the private sector is the right model.”
To Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships with Salt Lake County and a lead stakeholder with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, there’s been an “evolution of how our community responds to homelessness” on a variety of levels, from government to the private sector.
“We’re doing things differently than we have done for years,” she said, noting the coalition is focused highly on affordable housing and permanent supportive housing heading into the future. “It’s a big step in the evolution that’s been planned and the community has been working toward for years.”
To Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Utah’s decision to move to a smaller, scattered sites model is an idea that’s seen success in other cities, including Washington, D.C., which last year shut down its troubled “mega shelter” for homeless families, as reported by the Washington Post.
Despite battling strong “not-in-my-back-yard” sentiment, Washington Mayor Muriel E. Browser announced the closure of D.C. General, a former state hospital that was being used to house up to about 1,000 people, and replaced it with a network of seven smaller shelters across the city.
“The fact that it was spread all over the city, everybody realized they had to do their share, and the shelters that went up are really well run and have a lot of services,” Berg said.
“Over the years, this story about local leaders who sort of go ahead with good programs in the face of NIMBY and just push it through, ultimately the opposition largely disappears because people realize they’re good programs and really working,” Berg said.
Cities like New Orleans — which saw a surge of homeless after Hurricane Katrina — and Houston that use the Housing First model have seen long-term success, Berg said, so he predicted if Utah continues along that path it would bode well for the state.
“It’s the key to success to the extent there’s been success,” Berg said, though he noted “we still have a long way to go” as it relates to homelessness nationwide.
It sounds simple, but Berg said a “housing approach” is critical when it comes to actually addressing and reducing homelessness. As long as Utah’s new centers stay as housing-focused as leaders have intended them to be, he said, Utah’s likely headed in the right direction.
“The mission is not to just shelter people, but to get people out of shelter and back into housing,” Berg said. “That approach is the most important.”
Heading into 2020, Wilson said the next step is to let local governments like Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County take the lead in managing the day-to-day issues as the transition settles.
The House speaker also called Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson a “superb” and “remarkable champion for the county stepping in and taking the lead” on issues including funding needs for the new centers.
“That’s a great example of how local government in the state, even across party lines, works together to solve problems like this,” he said.
For a state and capital city where politics can clash, Utah has treated homelessness as a bipartisan issue, and for the most part city and county Democrats and state Republicans have been working in sync over the past several years make Utah’s new homeless system a reality.
Contrast that with what’s happening in Austin, Texas, where the Republican governor has been feuding with the city’s liberal leaders over people living in the streets after Austin’s mayor decriminalized camping in public places. Gov. Greg Abbott ordered crews to begin clearing out homeless encampments under Austin bridges and overpasses, and announced earlier this month he’s creating a homeless campsite on state land.
To Berg, if there’s one thing going well for Utah, it’s bipartisan alignment around homelessness.
“One thing about homelessness is, the cities that have made a lot of progress is from everybody working together and being on the same page,” Berg said, pointing to cities and states including Florida, Georgia and Atlanta.
To Hardy, the cooperation between city, county and state governments has been “pretty much unprecedented,” and the complex transition into the new homeless system wouldn’t have been possible without that cooperation.
“We would have never gotten this far if people weren’t working together,” Hardy said.
Cox has long trumpeted Utah’s ability to work across party lines, especially with homelessness.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements we have to work through,” he noted, “but everyone really is committed to doing the right thing and make this happen. ... No one is questioning motives. We’re all trying to take politics out of it. When you do that, you really can make a difference. And I hope we never lose sight of that in Utah.”