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Utah homeless spending is up by 600%, but the problems ‘continue to grow.’ Here’s what an audit says leaders should do

New legislative audit acknowledges some progress, but calls for better financial management of homeless system

Shelby Pueblo, who lives on the streets of Salt Lake City, talks about what she’s been through.
Shelby Pueblo, who lives on the streets of Salt Lake City, talks on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, about what she’s been through.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Even though it’s been about three years since state auditors raised red flags about Utah’s multimillion-dollar homeless system and a lack of accountability — which led to a full restructuring of the system’s management — another audit has found problems still persist.

Among those problems? Even though Utah has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars toward addressing homelessness, the state’s homeless population has continued to climb.

“For many years, the Utah State Legislature has been concerned with how to best address homelessness in the state,” legislative auditors said in an audit report released Tuesday. “As the homeless population has grown each year, so has the funding for homeless services.”

In their 2018 audit, legislative auditors estimated Utah’s homeless system spent more than $100 million in 2017 on direct and indirect costs associated with the homeless. Fast forward two years, and that figure ballooned to over $300 million in 2019, according to estimates by the Governor’s Office for Planning and Budget, auditors in the Office of the Legislative Auditor General wrote in Tuesday’s report.

And the money is still pouring in.

“Since that time, additional funds have been committed from public and private sources,” legislative auditors wrote. “Both the Legislature and private donors have expressed concern as to whether this increased funding is producing tangible results given the growing number of individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Since 2016, state spending on homelessness in Utah has increased by more than 600%, according to auditors. Most of the increase has come from state contributions to build the three new homeless resource centers, which were designed to stop warehousing homeless individuals and rather put a heavier focus on diversion, treatment and housing. Plus, the Utah Legislature this year committed $15 million more for homelessness.

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic and minimal time (the homeless resource centers) have been in operation, it is difficult to assess the impact of the funding adequately and fairly,” auditors acknowledged.

But auditors compared the increase in funding to the number of unsheltered individuals, which has also grown since 2016 — an increase of nearly 200%, they wrote, while the number of sheltered individuals has only decreased by 6%.

Over that five-year period, the total number of homeless individuals has grown by nearly 12%. “That growth in unsheltered homelessness, which tripled from 2016 to 2020, is of particular concern,” auditors wrote.

A homeless man who only gave the name Abdul sets up a tarp for shade during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on July 12, 2021.
A homeless man who only gave the name Abdul sets up a tarp for shade during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 12, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Should Utah adopt a ‘move on’ model?

Auditors wrote Utah’s chronically homeless population has “more than tripled during the last five years,” though they acknowledge it’s important to note that changes in the Point-in-Time count’s methodology have likely impacted the count, especially in 2020.

Specifically, auditors noted there’s “little turnover” among residents staying in permanent supportive housing — and that lack of turnover is “another limitation of Utah’s strategy to address homelessness.” For example, auditors said they found one permanent supportive housing facility where 30% of its residents have stayed for 10 years or more.

“We’re not seeing a lot move on,” James Behunin, senior audit supervisor with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, told lawmakers while presenting the audit to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The audit also stated the increasingly high cost of housing remains an obstacle to “fully implementing Utah’s housing-based strategy” to tackle homelessness. Auditors noted permanent supportive housing is an “especially costly alternative” estimated at about $250,000 to $275,000 per unit.

“That’s just unsustainable,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said after Behunin presented the audit’s findings on low turnover out of permanent supportive housing.

Auditors agreed, and that’s why they suggested perhaps state leaders need to consider a “moving on” strategy focused on helping people move out of permanent supportive housing after they no longer require that level of support.

“Because few residents move on to more independent forms of housing, few new spaces are made available in the existing facilities,” auditors wrote. “Unless this trend can be reversed through a ‘moving on’ strategy, the growing population of chronically homeless will impose an ever-growing burden on Utah’s homeless system.”

So the Utah Homelessness Council has a policy decision to make, auditors said. Is the goal to simply house people, or is it to help them into self sufficiency?

“If the goal is also to help people become self-sufficient, then new strategies and performance measures must be developed which are aligned with that goal,” auditors wrote.

Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who now serves as the state’s homeless coordinator, thanked the auditors and said the Utah Homelessness Council now has “a lot of things that we can build upon to revise our strategic plan” with self-sufficiency in mind.

Some Democrats, however, challenged that concept, saying state leaders must also prioritize funding for housing.

“You can’t have increased self sufficiency without providing housing for these folks,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said. “I think it’s folly to talk about, ‘You need to increase self sufficiency, but those folks in (permanent supportive housing), they’ve been there for a long time, we need to move them out because that’ll increase self sufficiency.’ That ain’t going to happen, guys.”

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-Salt Lake City, also quoted the Bible, saying there will always be the “poor,” a segment of society that will need help. “This is a problem from the beginning of time,” she said. “We have those that flourish and those we take care of.”

Niederhauser, however, also quoted the Bible, saying “‘there were some societies ... that there was no poor among them.’ My guess is there were poor among them, but they figured out how to deal with it better than we have.”

“And so that’s the hope,” Niederhauser said, “that we can figure it out like they did.”

How does Utah’s homeless problem compare?

There is, however, some good news for Utah, when taking a more regional look at the state’s homeless problem.

“Compared with other Western states, Utah’s problem with homelessness is more manageable,” auditors wrote. “While Utah’s homeless population has grown, Utah has fewer homeless individuals per capita than other western states.”

Utah only has 9.8 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents — a lower rate than other Western states. Compare that to the rate of 40.9 in California, 22.4 in Nevada, 17.1 in Colorado and 13 in Idaho, according to data from the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment report to Congress.

“Although Utah’s total number of individuals experiencing homelessness per capita is the lowest in the western United States, it is still important that the resources devoted to homeless services are used effectively and are producing quantifiable results,” auditors wrote, before diving into what actions state officials can take to accomplish those goals.

What should Utah do now?

Auditors noted that some, but not all, of their recommendations in their 2018 audit to address “serious concerns about the lack of oversight, accountability, and control within Utah’s homeless services system” were followed.

“While we recognize that progress has been made, we also identify additional steps that can be taken to create a more accountable, data-driven, and results-oriented homeless services system,” auditors wrote.

In 2018, auditors called on the State Homeless Coordinating Committee (which has since been restructured into the Utah Homelessness Council) and local homeless councils to develop a strategic plan to guide its efforts, and to clean up the state’s ineffective performance data, which was “fraught with errors,” in order to track its progress.

“While not all of our recommendations have been implemented, some progress has been made toward creating a data-driven and accountable homeless services system,” auditors wrote, pointing to the state and local homeless councils that have created strategic plans to guide their efforts, some of which do include performance measures.

Additionally, auditors acknowledged the Utah Legislature in 2021 restructured the State Homeless Coordinating Committee into the Utah Homeless Council to “strengthen the state-level oversight and coordination of homeless services.” As part of that restructuring, Niederhauser was hired as the state’s leading homelessness coordinator.

Auditors also noted the state and four of the 13 local homeless councils have created strategic plans. While that’s an “important improvement,” auditors identified other issues that still need to be addressed.

Although state and local homeless committees “did prepare strategic plans, the plans lack some of the elements that we specifically recommended to include,” such as “goals, strategies and performance measures for specific populations, evaluation of individual providers and programs, and input from a broad range of stakeholders.”

Here are some of the key findings the legislative auditors listed in their report:

  • Utah needs to clarify whether the objective of Utah’s homeless services system is to help individuals find housing or whether it is also to help individuals overcome obstacles to independent living.
  • Utah’s strategic plan lacks elements recommended in the 2018 audit report and should be updated.
  • Utah’s homeless services system needs better financial management practices to assure efficient use of resources.

“Based on our review of current financial management practices, we question whether large increases in funding will produce the desired results,” auditors wrote. “By applying better spending and financial analysis, Utah’s homeless services system can better assure its funders that the resources are well spent.

Auditors said the Utah Homelessness Council and Niederhauser “can more effectively lead Utah’s homeless system by clarifying its objective, whether that is to help homeless individuals find housing or whether it is also to help them overcome obstacles to independent living. Currently, Utah’s homeless services system mainly defines its success in terms of how quickly it helps homeless individuals obtain and retain housing.”

Auditors recommended:

  • Utah’s Homelessness Council should clarify the goals and objectives of Utah’s homeless services system.
  • State and local councils need to draft strategic plans that include: 1) strategies for specific subpopulations, 2) ways to evaluate programs and individual service providers, and 3) input of all stakeholders.
  • The Homelessness Coordinator and Utah Homelessness Council need to update funding analysis, utilize cost analysis, and use client data to address and quantify gaps in the system.

Niederhauser, in a written response to the legislative auditor’s report, thanked auditors for their work and noted the audit has “highlighted efforts” that he and the Office of Homeless Services “have been working on for several months.”

“Clarifying the goals and objectives of the homeless services system is a policy decision for the Utah Homelessness Council,” Niederhauser wrote. “The Office of Homeless Services will work closely with the members of the Council to implement the audit recommendations.”

Within the next month, Niederhauser said a request for proposal will be released to revise the state’s strategic plan on homelessness.

“Additionally, we will be working with the Utah Homelessness Council, the Local Homelessness Councils, and the Utah Homeless Network in finding solutions which create the best opportunity to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring,” Niederhauser wrote.