Should Utah cities do more to shelter the homeless during winter months?
Bill would incentivize more cities to provide overflow shelter space, but some leaders say, ‘Not in my backyard’
When Utah closed the downtown Road Home shelter in favor of a dispersed model, the idea was — at least in part — to share the responsibility of sheltering Utah’s homeless population amongst cities in Salt Lake County.
Three years later, that burden is still unevenly distributed across the county, said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who is sponsoring a bill that is intended to address winter and summer overflow shelter space, by asking cities to produce plans for overflow space no later than September.
Eliason said HB440 creates a “plan A,” where cities — specifically those in Salt Lake County — come together and submit a plan to the state’s office of homelessness. If cities don’t submit plans by the deadline, or if the plan is not deemed sufficient, the state would adopt “plan B,” by flexing capacity at existing homeless resource centers and using state-owned facilities as overflow shelters.
“During this past winter, we had encountered situations that we had not encountered before in the state where our first traditional winter overflow shelter opened just approximately two weeks ago, long after snow began to fall,” Eliason told his House colleagues on Tuesday.
“In Salt Lake County, we’ve had particular difficulties with municipalities deciding which city should host a temporary overflow shelter, and this bill seeks to address that issue.”
The bill would also appropriate $5.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act and $5 million ongoing from the state’s general fund. The $5.8 million would be used to pay off the debt created when the Legislature and local partners built three new resource centers for the dispersed model of shelters. The ongoing money would be directed to cities with larger homeless populations to be used for homeless mitigation projects.
“This is not the first bill, many others have run in this area, and it won’t be the last,” Eliason said during a House Health and Human Services Committee meeting Friday. “It won’t solve all of our problems, but I think it takes a thoughtful approach to some of the issues we’re facing.”
Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who is now the state homeless coordinator, said a variety of life events — including trauma, addiction or intergenerational poverty — are part of a “complicated” path to homelessness, the core issues of which are ongoing and difficult to address.
“There’s no way anybody’s going to heal from that unless they have a stable housing situation,” he told the committee.
Utah has a shortage of affordable housing, Niederhauser said, and homelessness will continue to be an issue until it’s adequately addressed. HB440 is a useful stopgap measure to provide help until the larger issues can be mitigated, he said.
“It’s been a challenge every year to get an overflow shelter in place. This will, I think, get us to a point where we have something ready when bad weather comes,” he said.
Still, some Salt Lake City leaders were concerned that the bill doesn’t adequately incentivize other communities to take part in providing shelters. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, wondered if other cities would feel the need to ramp up services, knowing that the “plan B” would go into effect.
“If (communities) see the state expanding capacity, how do we convince other communities to be as welcoming?” she asked.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall spoke against the bill in committee, saying the bill would “upend” the recently revamped system of dispersed shelters throughout the county.
“The definition of insanity, they say, is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. So no matter what the flex percentage would be … it does not matter. The existence of the flex is the camel’s nose in the tent that creates zero incentive … for any other city to say, ‘You’re right, it’s time for another city to step up,’” Mendenhall said.
She called the issue of homelessness a “humanitarian crisis,” saying there are other cities who should be able to step up and help.
HB440 passed the House on Tuesday after a failed attempt to water the language down and exempt certain cities from participating. Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, tried to amend the bill to provide an exemption for cities that spend more than $5 million annually on homelessness mitigation or have 2,000 housing units for low income earners.
Winder acknowledged that the amendment would benefit West Valley City — among others. Although West Valley doesn’t host a homeless resource center, he said the city already spends plenty of money on law enforcement and other mitigation efforts thanks to the Men’s Resource Center, which is located just across the border in South Salt Lake.
Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City, stood in support with Winder’s move, saying the city has “done much more than you could ever imagine to help the homeless.”
But to Eliason — who “vigorously” opposed Winder’s amendment — the arguments further highlighted the need for the state to step in, because many local leaders and cities balk at the idea of hosting shelters themselves.
“The amendment is demonstrative of why we need this bill,” Eliason said. “Because for the past several years, particularly, cities have been saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’ ... I believe every city could come up with an answer of why they should not be considered for an emergency homeless shelter.”
House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, agreed.
“Every one of our cities would like that type of exemption. I don’t think that’s fair. It’s wrong,” he said.
Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, also backed the bill.
“We’ve all got to take ownership of this problem,” Miles said.
When the Legislature adopted the new shelter model, they created “a hot potato,” Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan said, but promised to help mitigate public safety concerns and other impacts for the cities who stepped up to provide overflow shelter space.
“If we don’t pass this, we prove to them that if we make that kind of promise, they simply can’t count on it,” he said.
HB440 passed the House on a 53-21 vote with all but two Democrats in opposition. It now goes to the Senate.
Three days remain in the 2022 legislative session, which is set to adjourn at midnight on Friday.