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‘Confusing leadership’ spurs call for central office on homelessness to combat the issue

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Volunteers and homeless people sort through their belongings as the Salt Lake County Health Department clears out Camp Last Hope in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An effort to streamline the state’s homeless services structure after a study found multiple problems including “confusing leadership” starts its legislative journey Wednesday.

HB347, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would create an Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services. The bill awaits a first committee hearing after a scheduled hearing Wednesday morning was canceled.

The new office would be overseen by a deputy director to be chosen by the governor and would advise the governor on homelessness issues.

The bill comes as Utah continues to grapple with issues regarding homelessness after implementing a new model in 2019, moving away from a large, centric shelter and focusing on smaller homeless resource centers.

The pandemic further exacerbated difficulties for sheltering the community’s homeless as resource centers needed to quarantine and ensure physical distancing capabilities. Homeless encampments continue to pop up in Salt Lake City as beds in shelters remain in high demand. Recently, Salt Lake City stepped in to house a winter overflow shelter for the second year in a row, with city leaders calling for others to help.

In November, the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy released its report that found incomplete data and no statewide plan to address homelessness. The institute issued a list of recommendations to fix issues.

“Despite a major influx in funds toward emergency shelters and resource centers, the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring is not being met,” researchers wrote in the November report.

“Private donors and elected officials are concerned the resources poured into solving these issues have not warranted the expected results. ... Local and regional officials and service providers continue to face increasing demand for shelter,” according to the report.

The new program under the bill would transfer the administration of existing state homelessness services programs and funds to the Office of Homeless Services. The office would also oversee a Homeless Management Information System that shares client data between state and local agencies and private service providers.

As recommended in that report, Eliason’s bill would also create the Utah Homelessness Council, which would include a member of the public with expertise in homelessness issues; state officials; a member of both the Utah House and Utah Senate; mayors of cities that host shelters; a religious leader; and someone who has been homeless and homeless service providers. The council would be led by the deputy director of the Office of Homeless Services.

The bill carries a fiscal note of $789,700 in ongoing funds to pay for per diems for members of the homelessness council and personnel costs.

While the bill addresses central homelessness leadership, it doesn’t address some funding issues brought up in the Gardner Policy Institute report.

As written, the bill would not implement a “philanthropic consortium” of private funders in Utah who want to coordinate funding in “a more effective manner”; or coordination between the three Utah Continuum of Cares and 13 homeless councils.

The bill would instead require the deputy director to ensure that the homeless services budget includes “an overview and coordination plan” for all funding sources for homeless services in the state, including from state agencies, Continuum of Care organizations, housing authorities, local governments, federal sources and private organizations.

One prominent homeless advocate who vocally opposed a bill to create a “homeless czar” position in the state last year spoke out against the new bill when it became public on Thursday.

“Disappointed that HB347 returns to anti-housing first language from last year’s czar bill, eliminates local homeless coordinating committees. Lot of time and money on a study just to ignore its recommendations AND best practices,” Jean Hill, a leader of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, tweeted.

When reached for comment on Thursday, Hill said: “All I can say at this point is that I have heard a substitute bill is in process and am hopeful it will reflect the full extent of the work done by so many in the Gardner Policy Institute study.”

“My primary, though not only, concern is that the deputy director’s authority in the bill does not reflect the consensus we developed during the study,” she said in an email.

The Gardner Policy Institute report was commissioned by the Utah Legislature and the state’s philanthropic community — including several Utah business giants like Gail Miller, Harris Simmons, president and CEO of Zions Bancorp., Clark Ivory, of Ivory Homes, the Eccles family, Josh Romney and others — and contains a “statement from the benefactors” that urges state officials to develop a better strategy to deal with homelessness.

Correction: A previous version included a quote from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute saying that first-time homelessness is rising in Utah. That statement had previously been retracted after the institute report’s November publication, according to the Department of Workforce Services.