A proposal meant to incentivize cities to provide emergency homeless shelter space in the winter cleared a final legislative hurdle on Thursday.
The bill advanced despite concerns from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall that it doesn’t provide enough encouragement to other cities in Salt Lake County. She argued that homelessness mitigation efforts would still fall largely on the shoulders of cities that already host homeless resource centers: Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Midvale.
Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said HB440 has a “plan A” that asks city leaders to come together and propose a plan to provide emergency shelter space to the state’s office of homelessness no later than Sept. 1 each year. If the plan is deemed insufficient, the state would adopt a failsafe “plan B,” by flexing capacity limits at existing homeless resource centers.
The bill also allocates $5 million annually to a homeless shelter host cities’ mitigation fund, and provides $5.8 million in one-time funding to pay off the debt of the three homeless resource centers.
During debate on the Senate floor on Thursday, floor sponsor Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, described the bill as the “best path forward” to address homelessness.
Cameron Diehl, executive director of the League of Cities and Towns, said the league and cities in Salt Lake County have all been engaged in negotiations with the bill.
“We appreciate all of the work that went into the third (version of the bill), including the funding to help cities with homeless resource centers, and cities in Salt Lake County are ready to get to work,” he said.
Anderegg said a couple of cities have concerns that the state could preempt their overflow plans, but called those concerns “much ado about nothing,” saying there is little need for the Utah Office of Homeless Services to preempt cities’ plans.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said Salt Lake City spends about $22 million from the city budget on homelessness mitigation with little help from state funding. He said the bill could give the city $2 million to $3 million, which he called an improvement, but said he doesn’t see the bill as a solution to the homelessness issue.
Salt Lake City has stepped up over the last few years to host temporary overflow shelters.
“The greatest impact is often felt by the residents near those facilities,” Weiler said, adding they feel a “disproportionate impact.”
The overflow shelters often involve mats on the floor, no space for pets and no space for couples, he said, which will “not lure” shelter-resistant people off the street.
He said the direction of the bill is a step back toward the old “warehouse” shelter model and the now-closed Road Home shelter in the Rio Grande district.
But Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, called the bill “a step in the right direction” and said he believes it will encourage cities in Salt Lake County to work together.
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, also said he supports the bill although he is “uncomfortable” about certain aspects.
“We’re stepping backward a little bit with the flex of the shelters,” he said.
Kitchen proposed an amendment to exempt his city from the “failsafe trigger that was mapped out,” but Anderegg opposed the amendment, noting that Salt Lake City houses the majority of homeless people in the state.
Kitchen’s amendment failed.
Anderegg became emotional as he said “the best solution for the homeless is caring, is stepping up and doing your part. I know if we join hands and do that, that’s our best shot to address this issue.”
He said “I don’t think anyone likes to tell anyone else they have to do this,” and acknowledged that some cities bear the “brunt” of the issue. But if leaders can “set aside our differences,” he said they can make a “big chunk” toward solving it.
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, noted that a lot of people are homeless because “they can’t afford today’s rent.” The bill doesn’t address that issue, he said, but said he would support it because it would provide shelter for some people.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, contended the bill is “pouring millions more dollars into the same thing” to address homelessness.
Her constituents in the Rose Park neighborhood and the west side of Salt Lake City are “exhausted,” she said. “We’ve asked for a break in Salt Lake City ... and this bill does not do that.”
“If the goal is to accomplish nothing but spend money, let’s just go to Disneyland,” said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.
The Senate passed HB440 24-4 and the House approved their substitute on Thursday evening.
Mendenhall explained her stance on the bill during a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards on Thursday morning prior to the Senate vote on the bill, saying she appreciates the push to get more cities involved but is “firm” in opposing flexing capacity.
“There’s one thing that no one disagrees on is that there needs to be more shelter beds,” Mendenhall said, but she shared concerns that the flexed capacity “takes us backwards.”
The Road Home shelter at times housed more than 1,100 people and became known for its drugs and crime.
Finding places to host the new homeless resource shelters “was the most difficult political decision and process I’ve ever been through, in eight years,” Mendenhall said.
She said “the commitment we made to the communities was they will not become what the Road Home was. These capacity limitations are firm.”
She said that mayors from Salt Lake County met last week and agreed that cities with current homeless resource centers should be protected from having capacity flexed, even as they recognized “that means we’re going to have to step up.”
“This is a unique moment we have never seen before. I don’t believe it will last,” Mendenhall said, noting that some cities have faced pressure from the public in the past if they tried to add temporary overflow shelter space.
Lack of affordable housing and zoning laws across the state contribute to the number of people experiencing homelessness, Mendenhall said, and the concentration of homeless services in and around Salt Lake City “means that we are disproportionately bearing the weight of a statewide homelessness crisis. And we need to stop with this narrative that this is Salt Lake City’s problem.”
The governor’s request for $128 million for an affordable housing investment “would have been a watershed moment,” Mendenhall said, and called on the state to “step up” after the Legislature funded only $55 million of the ask.
Mendenhall praised former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who is now the state homeless coordinator, for translating the complexity of the issue and helping make affordable housing a priority in Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposed budget.
“I think that’s what makes this year so heartbreaking ... that this money was there,” she said.
Niederhauser told reporters during a media availability after the Senate vote that even though not everyone is happy with the legislation, it’s needed to address the statewide problem of homelessness.
“(State and city leaders) are seeing that we need to do this. That Salt Lake City isn’t the only one that needs to bear this burden,” he said. “This is a community problem. This is a statewide problem that is going to take a community and statewide solution.”
He acknowledged the “preemption” policy requiring city leaders to come up with a plan for winter overflow is “controversial.” State leaders “don’t want to preempt,” he said, so “hopefully” the mayors will do their part so the state doesn’t have to step in.
“We don’t want to be into January and February opening up an overflow shelter for the winter,” he said. “It needs to be opening at the latest in November.”
Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Katie McKellar