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Does Utah need a homeless boss? Sweeping bill to restructure system OK’d

Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, takes down information as to where he is seeing homeless camps during the 2021 Point-in-Time count, a nationwide annual event to survey people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, takes down information as to where he is seeing homeless camps during the 2021 Point-in-Time count, a nationwide annual event to survey people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. A Utah House committee on Thursday OK’d a sweeping bill to restructure a homeless governance system in the state.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah House panel offered early support to a bill that would create a central leader on homelessness and make other sweeping changes after a study late last year identified several issues with the state’s homeless services system.

“The ultimate objective of this bill is to help people step out of homelessness and back into our community,” said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

HB347 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.

“COVID has obviously complicated the homeless services arena. Donors have been challenged to know where best to put their generous donations in a newly fragmented system that the Legislature, in an attempt to improve services for homeless individuals, made changes,” Eliason told members of the House Government Operations Committee on Thursday.

“However, there was quite a bit of discontent over who’s really managing the homeless system in the state,” he said.

Streamlining leadership, coordination

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

HB347 as originally written called for the creation of a “deputy director” position to oversee homelessness issues. The bill drew early criticism from a homelessness leader who said it didn’t align closely enough with recommendations made in the Gardner Institute report in the power it gave the director.

Eliason introduced a substitute bill Thursday that would create a governor-appointed “state homeless coordinator” position rather than a deputy director. The coordinator would then advise the governor on homelessness issues.

Eliason emphasized he does not want that leader to be called a “homeless czar.”

“We want accountability, we want collaboration, and we want results, but I don’t like the connotation that comes with ‘czar,’” he said.

As recommended in the Gardner Institute report, the bill would create the Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services, which would be led by the state homeless coordinator. The office would also oversee a Homeless Management Information System that shares client data between state and local agencies and private service providers.

HB347 would also create the Utah Homelessness Council to 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 coordinator of the Office of Homeless Services.

The new version of the bill would also transfer the administration of existing state homelessness services programs and funds to both the Office of Homeless Services and the Utah Homelessness Council.

Prominent Utah philanthropist Pamela Atkinson praised homeless service providers for “keeping the system going and mitigating the virus” throughout the pandemic.

“This bill is good, and it is worth trying out. Many of the suggestions that came from the combination of the community providers, the advocates, as well as the funders. Having the funders involved will give them an opportunity to see more of the outcomes and have a say in where their money is going,” Atkinson said.

“The system has been working in many ways, but we need this one person to be out of the governor’s office who can give advice to the governor and who can work with all the other agencies involved,” she said.

The bill would also create the Utah Impact Partnership, allowing a coalition of private funders to participate in the decision-making process with the Utah Homelessness Council.

According to Eliason, members of the donor community have “either lost confidence or simply not known where they can make, direct their donations and place their generosity.”

Through the partnership and reorganized Utah Homelessness Council, donors “will have a seat at the table in the decision-making” and get insight into how funds are used, Eliason said.

Rep. Val Peterson, R-North Ogden, asked what the bill’s nearly $800,000 fiscal note in yearly funding will pay for, as Utah has functioned without paying a central homelessness leader while the lieutenant governor served as leader of the homeless coordinating council.

Eliason said the funding will pay for the full-time coordinator position and a few positions to assist.

“There would be some people who would say, ‘We got what we payed for,’” Eliason said of the current system.

‘We need somebody who’s in charge’

Several community homelessness advocates spoke in support of the bill during the committee meeting.

An original critic of the bill, Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, says the new version of the bill better represents the results of the Gardner Institute study. She thanked Eliason for his efforts.

Søren Simonsen, executive director of Jordan River Commission, noted that “there’s still a large need to address unsheltered homelessness” in the state.

“This is a state issue that needs a coordinated statewide effort. We need somebody who’s in charge, as you will,” Simonsen said.

“We believe that having a strong governance model at the state level with full involvement of our local government and local homeless councils and private funders, we can really shift our system in the state of Utah” and reduce homelessness, said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home.

Rick Graham, vice president of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said for over 30 years he served as a municipal employee of Salt Lake City. While directing public services, he said he saw “firsthand over about 35 years the effects that homelessness has had in the downtown central business district area and particularly the community around Pioneer Park.”

“This legislation is important because it helps solve homeless issues. In the long run, it will also provide an opportunity for assets like Pioneer Park ... to enjoy the type of public asset that it could be,” Graham said.