SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to empower a single individual to oversee Utah’s homeless services — perhaps titled a homeless “high priestess” instead of the disliked phrase “homeless czar,” as the sponsor has joked — cleared a major legislative hurdle Monday.
The Utah House of Representatives voted narrowly, 41-32, Monday to advance HB394 to the Senate — but not without a big change amid ardent opposition from homeless providers and state officials who worried it would give too much power to one person and “undermine” current efforts.
HB394 would still create a new governor-appointed homeless services director position that would have the power and responsibility to coordinate all state homeless services and approve all state homeless funding. But the bill was changed on the House floor to delay its effective date until summer 2021.
That means the Utah Legislature could tweak the bill next year, possibly after a Kem C. Gardner study tasked with researching Utah’s current governance system overseeing homeless services.
House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, backed the new version of the bill alongside sponsor Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, saying the delayed effective date should quell most concerns.
“I will admit, in its original form, this bill caused a lot of consternation,” Gibson acknowledged, but he assured House lawmakers its new form would be better received.
Coleman and the bill’s supporters, including the Pioneer Park Coalition, have lobbied for a homeless director to bring better “accountability” to the state’s homeless system, currently overseen by the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which has seats for mayors whose cities host homeless shelters and has ultimate decision-making power to distribute state funds to various programs throughout Utah.
Coleman also said it would help move the state toward a more data-focused and goal-driven system. She said “over $400 million” has been spent over the last two years, but only hundreds of people have left the homeless system and become “self-reliant.”
“I think that is a good indication that we need a stronger capitulated leadership,” Coleman said.
But Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, voted against the bill, expressing concerns it would weaken the power of rural communities that host homeless shelters to have a say in how funds are distributed. Currently, mayors from St. George, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, South Salt Lake, Ogden and Midvale are voting members on the board, along with a slew of state officials.
“I like the concept, but I oppose giving the authority to a ‘czar’ or one person that will be able to prioritize those funds,” Snow said.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified the number of a bill proposing a statewide leader over homeless services. It is HB394, not HB396.