SALT LAKE CITY — The Road Home closed. New resource centers for homeless men, women and children opened around Salt Lake County. But figuring out what’s best for those who have nowhere to live remains a work in progress.
As state and local leaders continue to work out the kinks in a system now focused on services and housing, they’re optimistic that the changes will begin a new era for addressing homelessness in Utah.
But will it succeed?
Deseret News editors named the state’s homeless experiment as the top Utah news story for 2019.
The downtown shelter closure in November capped off years of trying to spread resources around the county as well as eradicate the Rio Grande area of drugs and crime. Now, Library Square has become the hotbed for street camping and drugs, though not to the same degree as in the previous location.
The gender-specific resource centers — two 200-bed centers in Salt Lake City and one 300-bed center in South Salt Lake — were funded by more than $63 million in public and private dollars, including more than $20 million from the state. Critics have long argued that 700 beds aren’t enough to accommodate those displaced by the Road Home closure.
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 means about 9 out of every 10,000 Utahns are experiencing homelessness.
2. Romney and McAdams go to Washington
Sen. Mitt Romney quickly made his voice heard in Washington with an op-ed questioning President Donald Trump’s leadership the day before he was sworn in as Utah’s junior senator.
The former Republican presidential nominee held to his promise that he would call out Trump when he believed he was off base. One of those times — sharply criticizing Trump pushing for other nations to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — prompted the president to call Romney a “pompous ass” on Twitter.
Romney sponsored bills to address vaping, including proposing to raise the legal smoking age to 21 and to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Foreign affairs, particularly his view of China as the greatest military and economic threat to the U.S., also topped his agenda.
Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, found himself in a tough spot on the vote to impeach Trump. Ultimately, he agreed with the majority Democrats in the House that the president abused the power of his office by demanding a foreign government perform a personal favor and obstructed Congress by withholding documents and witnesses.
McAdams stood alone among the Utah delegation in voting for impeachment, calling it the right decision but a sad day for the country.
The House passed McAdams’ bill to help federal authorities to recover more money for investors defrauded by white-collar criminals. He also sponsored legislation to bolster federal trust funds, including Social Security and Medicare, and backed bills to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
3. The touring president
President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, undertook several major ministerial tours, dedicated a temple in Rome, and met with the pope and other world and national leaders during the past year.
In Rome, the 95-year-old church president gathered the entire First Presidency and every member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the temple dedication, something that had never happened before outside the United States. While in Italy, he and other church leaders met with Pope Francis at the Vatican where they shared a belief that faith in God brings morality and stability to society.
President Nelson also visited with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Tongan King Tupou VI and Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra and leaders of the NAACP. Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific were among his travel destinations during the year.
State lawmakers proposed sweeping tax changes during the 2019 Legislature, scrapped plans on taxing myriad services and held summerlong hearings before passing a $160 million cut in a special session in December.
While the package reduced income tax, it raised sales tax on food, gas and some services. Lawmakers also intend to send one-time checks to low- and moderate-income Utahns as part of the plan.
Shortly after lawmakers passed the massive reform bill, a bipartisan group launched a citizen’s referendum to overturn the law. It must gather nearly 1116,000 voter signatures by Jan. 21 to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.
5. Campus safety
The 2018 murder of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey led to her parents filing a $56 million lawsuit against the school in July.
Jill and Matt McCluskey say they sued as a last resort to improve safety on college campuses, claiming the U. ignored their daughter’s reports of stalking, physical abuse, intimidation and dating violence prohibited under Title IX. The Washington state couple also retained retired Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham to represent them.
The U. wants the suit dismissed, arguing that harassment perpetrated by someone who isn’t a student or employee of the university cannot be the basis for a Title IX claim against the school.
The school made several significant changes to improve campus safety.
The U. police chief retired and two officers who worked on the case left the department. The university hired a new public safety officer in December after a nationwide search.
6. Vaping crisis
Utahns felt the impact of the vaping illness epidemic as the state health department reported 125 people with lung disease and one death related to e-cigarette use. State health officials say vaping THC cartridges is likely driving the outbreak.
The health department tried to ban flavored e-cigarettes in Utah, but a state judge blocked the emergency rule after several vape shops objected in a lawsuit. The judge ruled that state regulators failed to link flavors to a rise in cases of lung disease.
The Utah County Board of Health passed a resolution urging the 2020 Legislature to ban flavored e-cigarettes, restrict vape shop signage and raise taxes on vaping products.
7. Inland port controversy
Protests, including some that turned violent, derailed several meetings of the Utah Inland Port Authority board, the panel charged with setting up a distribution center in northwest Salt Lake City that would accept foreign goods via truck, air and rail. An October meeting resulted in 10 protesters being charged with rioting and criminal trespass.
Critics say the port would increase pollution on the Wasatch Front. Salt Lake City filed a lawsuit against the state to stop the project. The authority is moving ahead with development on 16,000 acres west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
8. High tech boom
Utah’s high-tech sector continues to boom. Qualtrics, which SAP bought for $8 billion in 2018, will double the size of its Provo headquarters and hire 1,000 new employees. As an added amenity, the new building will include a 40,000-square-foot day care center.
Utah health-tech leader Health Catalyst went public, raising $182 million with the sale of 7 million shares at pre-market pricing of $26 per share. The new capital will help the company grow and achieve its global mission.
9. Mackenzie Lueck killing
University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck returned to Salt Lake City on a flight from California on June 17 but never made it home. A Lyft driver told police he dropped her off at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake about 3 a.m. where another person in a car was waiting for her.
Her disappearance launched a police investigation that led to 31-year-old Ayoola Adisa Ajayi 11 days later. Ajayi allegedly killed Lueck and set her body on fire. Police found her charred remains in a shallow grave in Logan Canyon on July 3. Ajayi could face the death penalty if convicted.
10. Conversion therapy
A yearlong effort to ban conversion therapy hit snags until a rule proposed by Gov. Gary Herbert gained the support of LGBTQ groups and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
LGBTQ groups and the church worked toward a legislative solution early in the year, but the effort failed to gain enough lawmaker support. Herbert then directed the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing in November to prohibit conversion therapy for minors. The new rule will use language from a bill that did not pass in the 2019 legislative session.
The church opposed an earlier rule — also crafted at the request of the governor after the legislation failed — on the grounds that it did not protect therapists who are parents, grandparents, or religious leaders from losing their license if they give spiritual, religiously based counsel.
Other notable stories from 2019:
Herbert will not seek another term, ending more than a decade as the state’s top elected official. Serving as lieutenant governor, Herbert took over after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned eight months into his second term in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Herbert’s departure opened the door to a slew of 2020 candidates, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Huntsman, who is back for another run. Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, businessman Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Amy Winder Newton also have an eye on the governor’s office.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski did not seek re-election after one up-and-down term. Voters in November elected Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall as the city’s new mayor.