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Why does Utah still not have a homeless czar?

Stacy Evans cries while sitting on a sidewalk outside of the Lantern House, a homeless shelter in Ogden, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. “We’ve been through hell. It sucks to be homeless,” she said.
Stacy Evans cries while sitting on a sidewalk outside of the Lantern House, a homeless shelter in Ogden, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. “We’ve been through hell. It sucks to be homeless,” she said.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Pop quiz: Who is in charge of Utah’s efforts to help the homeless?

If you’re drawing a blank, you’ve got the right answer.

Scott Howell, the former Democratic leader of the Utah Senate and current board member of the Pioneer Park Coalition, asked that question at a Tuesday meeting of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

Then he answered it. “There’s nobody.”

Does that seem strange, after all the effort that has gone into revamping homeless services around here?

Howell wasn’t the focus of our meeting. He was there with Robert Marbut, a frequent visitor to, and constructive critic of, Utah’s new Wasatch Front homeless initiatives. Ironically, Marbut recently became President Donald Trump’s homeless czar.

Utah needs one of those.

If Washington sees the need for one, why don’t the folks here see it?

This is not a new idea. Three years ago this May, the Deseret News called for one. A czar (what do they use as a nickname for appointed leaders in Russia?) could coordinate everything and demand accountability.

“How else can we be sure local leaders, who exist in a naturally competitive environment, are making decisions in everyone’s best interest, not just protecting their own turf?” an editorial back then asked.

It’s still a valid question.

To be fair, Marbut, whose official job is to head the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an organization that coordinates with 19 federal departments and agencies to address homelessness nationwide, is not unkind toward the system Utah’s leaders recently designed and put in place.

After seeing violence and chaos take over the neighborhood surrounding the Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street in downtown Salt Lake City, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes led an effort that eventually involved the governor’s office, Salt Lake City’s mayor and multiple law enforcement agencies throughout Salt Lake County. A task force was formed, and eventually the downtown shelter was replaced with three new ones scattered across the valley. These “resource centers” each handle different types of homeless people. Two of them contain 200 beds and one 300.

Marbut praises Utah’s statewide data system. He says people here seem to be working together. The situation today certainly is much better than a couple of years ago when people were literally killing each other around the old shelter.

And yet no one is in charge.

Marbut acknowledged that Hughes used to be the de facto leader, just by force of his personality. But he has since left the Legislature and now is a candidate for governor.

“On the org chart, it looks like 12-13 people can claim a piece of the leadership,” Marbut said. “There’s no chain of command; there’s no understanding.”

And without understanding, there can be little real accountability.

Marbut also is calling for greater transparency with the data that shelters are collecting on the homeless. Unless we know how many homeless people are successfully being treated and returned to society as contributing members, we won’t be able to tell whether the new system is working. A lack of accountability is a bureaucrat’s best friend.

And a czar could help that happen.

The Deseret News editorial board wasn’t the only one talking about this back in 2017. Former Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder worried a lack of leadership would result in a loss of uniformity.

“In a perfect world, it would be kind of good to have somebody say, ‘OK, look, we’re going to be agnostic here. Your responsibility, Salt Lake County, is that and that and that,” Winder told us back then. “We’re going to judge you based on that. And Salt Lake City, this is the county’s line, this is your line.”

Ideally, the Legislature would appoint this czar, give him or her a budget and authority. Or, the agencies and governments on the front lines of homelessness could enter a memorandum of understanding, creating the position and funding it.

The fear is that, absent such a leader, people along the Wasatch Front may never know whether their tax money is working to truly help the homeless.

As a side benefit, the next time someone asked who was in charge, the question would have an answer.