Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Friday she has created a new position within her office specifically devoted to homelessness — and she’s picked a member of the City Council to fill it.

Councilman Andrew Johnston will leave his west-side District 2 seat as well as his position as vice president of program operations for Volunteers of America Utah to take the post. He’s expected to start in the new role in the coming weeks, though a specific date hasn’t been selected yet, according to Mendenhall’s staff.

Mendenhall and Johnston made the announcement during a press conference held on a grassy median near the intersection of 800 West and North Temple, where Johnston has held outdoor meetings with this constituents, from people experiencing homelessness to business owners, on Fridays since June.

Johnston wore a black mask with the words “end homelessness,” stating plainly his goal in his new role as Salt Lake City’s director of homelessness policy and outreach.

“I don’t want to be too grandiose here, but if that’s not our goal, I don’t know what we’re doing,” Johnston said. “I’m not going to do it myself. The city’s not going to do it itself. You know, this is a massive issue nationwide, especially in metropolitan areas. But we need to lay the groundwork here to start that process.”

Salt Lake City Councilman Andrew Johnston chats with Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other City Council members after it was announced he has been hired as the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach during a press conference at the corner of 800 West and North Temple in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 16, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Some of Johnston’s fellow City Council members, who attended Friday’s announcement, applauded Johnston’s words, as did Mendenhall.

“Homelessness is one of the most pressing and complicated issues facing our city and cities across the nation today,” the mayor said. “The pathways into and out of homelessness are as varied as the individuals who experienced it themselves, and how Salt Lake City approaches the issue must be as innovative and collaborative and relentless as possible.”

Mendenhall said the city is lucky to have Johnston, who she said “possesses those very qualities.”

“In serving with Andrew over the course of four years as a councilwoman, I came to know him as a person who is empathetic and thoughtful and tirelessly invested in improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents,” Mendenhall said. “Andrew cares deeply about homelessness, affordable housing, equity and access to opportunity for all.”

Mendenhall’s announcement came just days after Gov. Spencer Cox announced his own pick for who will lead homeless issues at a statewide level: former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. Now the mayor of Utah’s capital city — where homelessness and on-street camping has been most visible in the Beehive State for years — has also specifically created a position aimed at addressing homelessness issues.

The moves show Utah’s political leaders are restructuring to devote more clear leadership within their offices to an issue that’s grown increasingly unwieldy throughout the pandemic, especially from on-street camping and housing prices keeping people from homes.

Johnson will fill a senior adviser position within Mendenhall’s office that was left vacant by David Litvack, who left the city on March 26 to take a position with the state as a deputy director of the Utah Department of Human Services.

Mendenhall said “99%” of Litvack’s work with the city revolved around homelessness, but she wanted to clearly designate the role as one to specifically tackle homelessness policy and outreach. She said she picked Johnston because of his legislative experience on the council as well as his “relationships with the Legislature.”

“We intend for Andrew to be working very closely with the Legislature,” she said. “I believe this is the most difficult and persistent issue politically for our capital city. And I have great confidence in Andrew’s vision for how we can improve our relationship regionally and throughout the state on homeless collaboration.”

Johnston’s move will leave the City Council’s District 2 seat up for grabs. The city recorder at a later date is expected to announce a process for accepting applications for the vacancy.