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Utah homeless ‘high priestess?’: Bill seeking homeless director faces horde of opposition

Homeless advocates, providers call bill ‘horrible.’ Pioneer Park Coalition says state system needs more ‘accountability’

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Michael and Meghan, who are homeless and asked that their last names not be used, pack their belongings as homeless people are forced to vacate an encampment on the south side of Library Square in Salt Lake City for a Salt Lake County Health Department cleanup on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Angry fireworks exploded in a Utah Capitol hallway on Thursday between two camps who both say they want the best for Utah’s homeless services system.

“You’re up here lying about what’s going on, and I just can’t sit back and watch,” Jean Hill, a leader of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, yelled at Scott Howell, a former state senator and member of the Pioneer Park Coalition.

“Pay attention to what’s happening, and don’t come here and lie to them and say, ‘Nothing’s going on,’” Hill shouted. “We meet every single week. We talk every single day about what’s going on. Members of that committee are in our meetings every single day. You’re not there, Scott.”

“Protect your empire, Jean,” Howell shot at Hill. “Protect it.”

“What empire?” Hill called back, throwing up her hands.

The furious exchange came right after a House committee voted to advance a bill seeking to create a state homeless director position to bring more “accountability” to what its supporters say is currently a “fractured system.”

During the committee hearing, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, who isn’t fond of the phrase “homeless czar,” joked the title could instead be “high priestess” or some other synonym.

But as eight lawmakers on the House Government Operations Committee voted one by one to endorse HB394 — all except one Democrat from Salt Lake City — audible gasps, groans and whispers came from homeless service providers, advocates, and state officials who work daily in Utah’s homeless system sitting in the audience.

The bill now goes to the House floor.

A version of the bill supported by homeless stakeholders including Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the state Department of Workforce Services, and the chairman of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, was left untouched and unadopted after Thursday’s meeting — which was, to them, a catastrophic development.


Jamie Pluta, illegal encampment abatement coordinator for the Salt Lake County Health Department, tries to offer services to a man as homeless people are forced to vacate an encampment on the south side of Library Square in Salt Lake City for a Salt Lake County Health Department cleanup on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Coleman and supporters from the Pioneer Park Coalition — an organization that has often gone against the grain of other Utah homeless organizations in calls for improvements to Utah’s homeless system — urged lawmakers not to adopt that version, saying it would defeat the purpose of the bill.

More ‘accountability’

As drafted now, HB394 would create a new governor-appointed homeless services director position — one that would have the power and responsibility to coordinate all state homeless services and approve all state homeless funding distribution.

That would alter the current power of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which under the bill would only act in an advisory role to the homeless director. The body that includes seats for local elected officials where homeless centers are housed would only be able to make recommendations, rather than funding decisions like it does now.

The aim, argued Coleman and Howell, is to bring more “accountability” to the state’s homeless system after a 2018 state audit found widespread problems with the state’s homeless system data, making it impossible for auditors to determine how well Utah’s multimillion-dollar homeless system was working.

Howell argued a point person over homeless services would provide better top-down coordination and accountability on a complex system with many different players, rather than leaving all accountability to the multiseat State Homeless Coordinating Committee that he said has functioned the same way for decades.

“If you had one person in charge, one choke hold, guess what, they would be in charge of this, and they would be working on this on the daily,” Howell said, arguing the Homeless Coordinating Committee doesn’t do enough because it only meets quarterly.

“We have done the same thing for the last 30 years, and it’s not working,” Howell said. “It’s time to change.”

‘Horrible bill’

But homeless service providers and advocates including Hill were reeling by the insinuation that not enough was being done. She said big strides have been made to address the 2018 audit, and there are daily phone calls and weekly meetings between on-the-ground homeless service providers and advocates seeking to address problems in real time.

“To sit there and just ignore everything that’s happened since those audits and even before the audits came out is unbelievably disheartening,” Hill told the Deseret News on Thursday.

“This bill is a horrible bill,” Hill said, saying it “guts” the State Homeless Coordinating Committee and the voting power of it members, who are elected officials in cities with homeless resource centers, to have their say in how money is distributed.

“What these guys refuse to recognize is how that committee works,” she said. “The State Homeless Coordinating Committee doesn’t meet weekly, but the state, county, city and providers and all of the coalition are meeting weekly to discuss issues. ... That’s how the situation with the warming center got resolved. It wasn't because there was one person up here who said, ‘Hey do something.’ It was because we’re working together to solve problems we see on the ground.”

Howell told the Deseret News after his confrontation with Hill he’s “not a liar” and he has serious concerns with accountability and who the buck stops with in regard to the state’s homeless system. He said data is still difficult to obtain, and he still sees problems.

“The emotion is high, and they want to protect their kingdoms. They want to do what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” he said. “Please, we have no desire to undo any of their work. What we have a desire to do is call out accountability, fleet of feet, a data central repository where we can have that information and not take all the time to get it.”

But Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services, said Coleman’s bill would be a “step backward” after years of effort. He said all the recommendations laid out by the audit are being met, and the State Homeless Coordinating Committee put out its vision in a statewide Strategic Plan on Homelessness unveiled last fall.


Meghan, left, and Michael, who are homeless and asked that their last names not be used, pack their belongings as homeless people are forced to vacate an encampment on the south side of Library Square in Salt Lake City for a Salt Lake County Health Department cleanup on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Hardy and prominent homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson urged lawmakers to adopt a different version of the bill, one that would specify the homeless director serve as an adviser to the governor and a member of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which would keep its power to make funding decisions.

Atkinson said she “really liked” the idea of having a statewide homeless services director, but as long as there is a balance of “authority” and “roles.”

$3.5 million shortfall

It’s been a rocky road for the transformation of Utah’s homeless services system over the last few years — since the audits, capacity concerns, and a need for an additional winter overflow shelter — but Hill said those issues are already being addressed by people working together.

“The real work is being every week, every day at different levels,” she said.

Where the real bottleneck has been, Hill said, has been the lack of affordable housing — and the Utah Legislature has yet to move to fund a major $35 million affordable housing bill that would help the system tremendously.

Meanwhile, the three new homeless resource centers are running about $3.5 million short of revenue for operational costs, according to Preston Cochrane, executive director of the centers’ owner, Shelter the Homeless.

“Now that the three new Homeless Resource Centers in Salt Lake County have been opened and operating at or near capacity since they opened, we now have a better idea what the operating costs look like going forward,” Cochrane said, calling the new homeless system a “historic reset” that was bound to be a more “expensive model” because of multiple facilities and expansive services.

Another bill seeking to help Shelter the Homeless with its outstanding debt cleared a House committee later Thursday. HB440, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would set aside half of the sale of the Road Home’s downtown property, now owned by the state, to help pay off a roughly $17 million loan Salt Lake County issued to the nonprofit, and the other half would go toward a fund to operate the shelters.

That bill’s next stop is the House floor.

Legislative vs. executive branch

Coleman and Howell got support from the House committee Thursday after Howell accused the “executive branch” and the lieutenant governor of telling Coleman their version of the bill is the one she was going to run.

“That’s what happened,” Howell said. “And the executive branch has now told the legislative branch what they will and will not work with.”

Coleman, in an interview with the Deseret News later Thursday, said officials from the “executive branch” had been “heavy handed” with what version of the bill she would run, and she was left frustrated.

“The legislative branch, we legislate. We come up with bills. In the end, the governor gets to choose if he wants to choose is veto or sign it,” Coleman said. “What he doesn’t get to do is come and usurp our process and say, ‘No, this is the bill you’re going to run and it will be signed in the end.’”

Cox, who is running to be Utah’s next governor, said in an interview Thursday he believes it’s “critical the state has a person devoted completely to homelessness” and “there’s just a disagreement with the governor how much authority that person should have.”

“And that’s really not a big deal at all,” Cox said. “I think that’s something that we can work through.”

Asked about Howell’s claims, Cox said he wasn’t sure what Howell was referring to, but “We’ve had lots of discussions about this over the past few weeks.”

Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Thursday he appreciates all the work over the years to “make things better” in Utah’s homeless system, but “we’re looking to improve everything we’ve got, and having somebody coordinate those efforts so we get more bang for our buck ... I’m all for it.”

But if Atkinson says the current version of the bill needs work, Herbert said, “We ought to all listen to Pamela” as a knowledgeable homelessness advocate.

“The idea of a coordinator isn’t a bad one,” Herbert said, “but the devil’s in the details.”

Coleman said she’s open to negotiations on her bill, but not a forceful approach from the executive branch.

“I’m willing to reach out, especially if there’s another hand coming my way,” she said. “And that’s what we haven’t seen. We’ve seen a heavy hand. Not a cooperative hand or collaborative hand.”

Contributing: Ladd Egan, Heather Kelly, Lisa Riley Roche