A coalition of downtown Salt Lake City business leaders are continuing their drumbeat call for city leaders to do better around homelessness and crime — and now they’ve got a retired state legislative auditor in their ranks.
That auditor — Jim Behunin, now executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition after serving 36 years as an auditor for the Office of the Utah Legislative Auditor General — is also the brain behind a new, 27-page plan the coalition released Thursday aimed at curbing crime and homelessness in Utah’s capital city.
“Salt Lake City’s approach to homelessness and crime is failing,” said Pioneer Park Coalition member Nicole Thomas, CEO and founder of LatterDay Bride, a wedding dress store that operated out of a storefront across the street from Pioneer Park for 23 years before Thomas relocated it to Bluffdale, saying crime, drug use and violence took over the area.
“Change must happen now,” she said. “As business owners, downtown residents and concerned citizens, we can no longer remain silent and watch this great city deteriorate.”
The three-prong plan calls for Salt Lake City to adopt a “comprehensive approach” focused on providing “support services that enable the homeless to change their lives;” doing more to enforce the law against camping and illegal drugs, as well as property crimes and violence; and improving “accountability” around everyone involved in the system, including homeless service providers.
Perhaps the most daring provision listed in the plan? A call for “sanctioned camps” as an “alternative” to homeless resource centers.
In order to do this, Behunin said city leaders must take a firm but also compassionate approach.
“For those camping on the streets, our message to them is, ‘In our community we do not allow people to live this way,’” Behunin said. To help them on a path to “healing and self-sufficiency,” he said they should be given a choice between either a shelter or a sanctioned camp “where we will provide a shower and a toilet and safety, a place to store your things” and someone to help “move down that path of self-sufficiency.”
Crime and homelessness is likely to be a top issue in the race for Salt Lake City mayor next year, for which Mayor Erin Mendenhall plans to seek reelection. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who announced last month that he intends to run again in 2023, attended Thursday’s press conference, though he didn’t speak at the microphone.
Political implications on the issue, however, were foreshadowed Thursday when Scott Howell, a former state legislator and member of the Pioneer Park Coalition, also announced that come January, Pioneer Park Coalition would be joining a broader coalition along with other community councils across the city that will be looking to support candidates that share their goals.
The new Capital City Coalition, he said, will adopt a financial model “where we can actually contribute to campaigns and look for leaders who share the vision of what we can do as a state, a community and a country to change the face of homelessness.”
Would a tent city work?
Historically, calls for sanctioned camping areas or tent cities have been met with little to no political support. In 2020, the Deseret News traveled to Austin, Texas, to explore solutions to homelessness and on-street camping, and among those possible solutions was a sanctioned tent city. But Mendenhall was reluctant to entertain the concept, calling it a “genie” that can’t be “put back in the bottle,” and one that doesn’t give the homeless population the “dignity” and services they need to get out of homelessness.
However, supporters of the Pioneer Park Coalition’s plan say a sanctioned camping area — though no one had an answer for where it would be located — could be successful if it’s managed well to provide a safe, clean and supportive environment aimed at helping connect those who currently avoid shelters to services like drug and mental health treatment.
Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are, to a certain extent, currently enforcing no-camping ordinances — but with no designated camping area, it’s simply moving camping around the city and into neighborhoods. This “game of chess with homeless encampments isn’t working,” Thomas said.
“You can’t take tent cities and disrupt them and then reestablish them in another place. This doesn’t change lives. They only breed crime, dirty needles, sexual assault, human waste and garbage,” Thomas said.
“We don’t want Salt Lake to become like Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York,” she said. “We believe in programs like Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Community First! Village in Austin, and programs right here like The Other Side Academy, LifeStart Village and SwitchPoint.”
Housing plus, not housing first
Behunin, who conducted several audits of Utah’s homeless system, said he’s seen the issues of Salt Lake County’s current homelessness system first hand.
Before the Road Home’s downtown shelter shuttered in 2019, Behunin said he toured the facility in the middle of the night and saw “drugs and all kinds of victimization and abuse” inside the shelter. He said some of those issues persist in and around homeless resource centers today, and while operators do seek to offer services, he said there isn’t enough focus on the type of services that work.
“We reject the notion of housing first,” Behunin said. Instead, he said the focus should be on “housing plus,” arguing that especially for the homeless population suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, service providers should prioritize programs “that change lives.”
“The problem with our current system,” Behunin said, “is we’re focused on housing, building more shelters, but we tend to forget that we’re not addressing the underlying need.”
The homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake, operated by the Road Home and Volunteers of America, Utah, were built with the promise that they’d offer wrap-around services, and they seek to “divert” people experiencing homelessness to programs such as treatment or housing as operators are able.
But Behunin said there’s actually “very little in the way of wrap-around services,” and not enough being done to treat addiction or mental illness,
Every year, housing and homeless advocates lobby the Utah Legislature for more funding. They have said the homeless resource centers, which have operated essentially at- or near-capacity since their opening, need resources to help diversion, whether it be for housing or mental health or drug treatment.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature allocated an unprecedented amount — $70 million — toward homelessness and housing, but it still fell far short of the $128 million Gov. Spencer Cox recommended in his budget for housing and homelessness programs.
The Pioneer Park Coalition plan’s supporters expressed frustration with the hundreds of millions of dollars Utah has spent on issues relating to homelessness, and they argued more should be done to prioritize and fund programs that have proven track records. In 2019, Utah’s homeless system spent more than $300 million on direct and indirect costs associated with homelessness, according to estimates by the Governor’s Office for Planning and Budget, legislative auditors wrote in a 2021 audit.
Søren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission — who is also a board member of the Pioneer Park Coalition as well as a member of the steering committee for the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness — said he’s long been an advocate for a sanctioned camping area, but he also acknowledges it faces big hurdles politically and practically.
But the problem with not having a sanctioned area means camping that’s already happening today will persist with no end in sight.
“I don’t have any misgivings that this would be an easy thing to do, nor do I believe that it would be a long-term solution,” he said. But the reality is, especially along the Jordan River, “people are camping.”
Simonsen said Pioneer Park Coalition’s plan provides an important perspective in a conversation that needs to consider all voices and perspectives. He said homeless service providers across the state, while also lobbying for more housing resources, also want more funding for services.
“I don’t know anyone within the homeless service provider community that’s not advocating for services and ‘housing plus.’ Nobody’s advocating ‘just give them a home.’ Everybody’s advocating ... ‘We need homes and we need supportive services.’”
How much would sanctioned camps cost?
There wasn’t a clear answer to that question. Behunin said while it could cost a significant amount of money up front to implement sanctioned camping, he argued it could save the state and city in the long run when considering the impact homelessness has on emergency services.
“I think upfront you’re going to need to spend more money on sanctioned camps. But the point is, we’ve got to get to a place where people are coming out healthy,” he said.
He added the funding might not necessarily need to come from taxpayers, noting Haven of Hope in Texas is largely funded by private donations “because people love to donate to things that work.”
“I don’t know that the burden on the taxpayer would be as much as we think it could be, but that people would step up. And I predict that legislators would also want to invest more in things that they know work,” he said.
In response to reporters’ questions about how the Pioneer Park Coalition’s plan would differ from what services are being offered currently, Behunin acknowledged there are services available today, but “we’re just talking about a whole other level of intervention.”
Asked what “accountability” would look like for service providers that aren’t delivering favorable results, Behunin said “shining the light of day on what’s going on leads to change.”
Howell took a stronger stance. “Cancel the contract,” he said.
‘We need something different.’
Tears slid down Jeralyn Delamare’s face.
She stood with her friend, Teresa Marzocca, within walking distance of Thursday’s press conference. Marzocca gave her hugs and touched her arm sympathetically as Delamare shared how she ended up homeless.
Delamare said she was a dental hygienist for 27 years before she got addicted to heroin, and her world “came crashing down.” After some struggles in her marriage, she said she “smoked a cigarette, and a week later I was addicted to heroin.”
Today, Delamare said she’s 31⁄2 years sober off of all drugs, and six years sober from heroin.
“But COVID knocked me down,” she said, explaining that she lost her job in a Cottonwood Heights grocery store during the pandemic. “I’m still sober,” she said, but now she’s living on the streets.
Wednesday night, she said she slept in front of 4th Street Clinic, and she avoids sleeping in shelters because she said “people steal your things.”
Asked about the Pioneer Park Coalition’s plan, Delamare had mixed feedback. She said she would potentially welcome a sanctioned camp “if there are bathrooms and showers, where we can have a tent that we can lock.” If it were managed safely, which she thinks is possible, it could work.
But if officials do more enforcement of camping than they already are, “It’s got to be done with so much care. Because these people are suffering.”
A hardline approach to drugs? She said that would be problematic. “You can’t do that. A lot of these people do their drugs so they can get through it. ... You have to understand, just because these people are addicted to drugs, they’re still people. They still matter.”
She agreed, however, there should be more emphasis on treatment programs that work. “There has to be more aftercare.”
Overall, people need to understand homelessness is a complex issue that can’t be boiled down to one face or one story.
“You can’t take us all and group us all together. We all have backstories. We all have reasons we’re out here.”
One thing’s for sure, she said, “We do need help. We do need services. But we need you guys to not judge us.”
“We do need something different. We need big change.”
Last month, the ACLU of Utah released a report titled “Displaced and Dispersed: the aftermath of Operation Rio Grande,” which focused on the impact of Operation Rio Grande — a sweeping law enforcement operation in 2017 meant to root out crime that had reached uncontrollable levels around the downtown Road Home shelter before it shuttered.
Jason Groth, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Utah, pointed to that report Thursday while arguing there are problems with increasing enforcement on Salt Lake City’s homeless population, whether it be for camping, drug use or vandalism offenses.
“Criminalizing” people experiencing homelessness adds further barriers down the line, Groth said.
“We’re never going to arrest our way out of homelessness, and camping citations don’t dissuade people from experiencing homelessness,” he said.
Clamping down even further on enforcement, he said, will compound problems for people who already “don’t have the means” to grapple with court issues, leading them to have warrants out for their name and future struggles to obtain housing.
Enforcement of camping ordinances can also lead to concerns about civil rights, Groth said, and while a sanctioned camping area would provide an alternative to force people off the streets, it would also come with plenty of logistical concerns and questions. Where would it be sited? How would it actually operate?
Groth also questioned whether it would be located near resources people would actually need, like treatment, social services, jobs, public transportation and health care.
“You know, what does that look like in a very practical way?” he said.
Homelessness is a complex and nuanced issue, and solutions should also include voices of people who are actually experiencing homelessness.
“If we don’t have those voices, we’re going to miss the mark every time,” he said.
The Pioneer Park Coalition intends to present the plan to the Utah Homelessness Council, the Salt Lake City Council and to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. It remains to be seen whether those groups will embrace the plan, even in part.
Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council issued a joint statement on Thursday that did not address specifics of the Pioneer Park Coalition’s plan, but welcomed input for solutions.
“In the same way solutions for homelessness are the responsibility of all levels of government, lasting solutions also require the involvement and perspectives of the community as a whole. That broad-based, cooperative approach is happening right now in our own city and state in an unprecedented way,” the statement said.
While Salt Lake City shares the coalition’s goals of “increased supportive housing, expansions in mental and behavioral health services and accountability for this issue at all levels of government,” the statement did not specifically address support for increased enforcement or a sanctioned camping area.
“We appreciate the Coalition highlighting these critical shortages in the system and hope it encourages greater understanding of this complex issue,” the statement continued. “We certainly look forward to further conversations. The city remains dedicated to effectively and efficiently addressing this crisis.”
Leaders of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness also did not address specifics, but said they’re working “in close cooperation with local municipalities, law enforcement, the State Office of Homeless Services and others to implement evidence-based approaches to ending homelessness.”
“Through this unprecedented level of coordination across government, nonprofit and private sectors, we are making steady progress, though there is still work to be done,” the statement continued. “We welcome individuals and entities seeking solutions to homelessness in our state that reflect the dignity of the person and best practices for addressing the often complex needs of people experiencing homelessness.”
Wayne Niederhauser, former Utah Senate president and now the state’s homeless services coordinator, was also mum on whether he’d support the plan, though he noted in a prepared statement his office is currently working on the state’s strategic plan on homelessness, set to be released in late fall.
“In the development of the state’s strategic plan, input was collected from stakeholders throughout the state. As a practice, we refrain from commenting on nonprofit strategic plans.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jim Behunin worked as the Utah Legislative Auditor General. He worked as an auditor within the Office of the Legislative Auditor General. An earlier version also misspelled Jason Groth’s name as Growth.