The snow had begun falling and Hailee Hernandez, the basic needs coordinator for the Christian Center of Park City, was unsure what to do for her client who was only equipped with shorts and shoes with no laces.

Hernandez was able to dress the man in warmer clothes that had been donated, purchase minutes for his phone and provide a suitcase for his items.

The man requested to be sent to Salt Lake County to seek shelter in one of the county's homeless resource centers. With no other option, Hernandez sent her client to Salt Lake City like he had asked, with a sleeping bag in hand in case he had to sleep on the streets.

'Code Blue'

While the winter overflow system in Salt Lake County has been expanded this winter, the availability of beds has been a consistent issue. On some of the coldest nights of the winter, advocates recall having to turn away unsheltered people due to capacity concerns.

"We still turn away 10 to 25 people every single night on the nights that are the very coldest and the most dangerous," said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah. "We've seen people come in barefoot, without coats and without any options to keep themselves alive on those frigid nights. For anyone who believes this bill isn't needed, I urge you to come in and turn people away at 2 a.m. without shoes."

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The system was overhauled after the Utah Legislature passed a bill last year that required leaders to come up with a homeless shelter overflow plan for the winter. Despite the new framework getting more beds on line faster than ever, it still fell short, State Homeless Director Wayne Niederhauser said.

HB499, which has now passed the House and is on its way to the Senate, is meant to address some of the shortfalls discovered this winter, including introducing a "code blue" that would be determined by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services when temperatures reach 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The code would require resource centers to expand capacity by 35% and allow other entities to open warming centers.

The system would allow camping during a code blue or when homeless resource centers are at capacity.

HB499 also:

  • Amends the previous deadline faced by city leaders to create a plan for winter overflow from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1.
  • Increases the state mitigation fund that helps cities that host homeless shelters or winter overflow facilities.
  • Requires cities with camping bans on the books to enforce them with few exceptions, in order for them to receive mitigation funding.
  • Directs counties with populations of at least 175,000 to create a plan to help unsheltered residents in the winter beginning in 2024. The requirement would include Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington counties.

Does a 'statewide' problem need a statewide solution?

Despite the effects being most visible in Salt Lake County, homelessness is a statewide issue. Every county across the state has citizens who are impacted by homelessness but may not have access to resources in the current county. Often, the individual will have to leave their community and travel to another city that may be able to provide them with shelter.

The increase in population can create a burden on providers and the surrounding community. Part of that burden is meant to be alleviated by the Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation fund. Cities that house permanent resource centers or overflow facilities receive additional funds to mitigate issues, such as an increase in public safety costs. Cities that opt out of providing a permanent resource center or overflow option contribute to the mitigation fund.

"The state of Utah has spent almost $2.5 million on winter overflow this year. It's a big nut to crack. It's a big issue statewide and so we wanted to make sure those cities who will accept, or reluctantly accept, an overflow shelter have enough money to mitigate the impacts of having that shelter in their community," said Niederhauser.

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Along with increasing mitigation funds to help ease the burden, the bill would require all counties with a population of at least 175,000 people to prepare for helping unsheltered residents in the winter. The new requirement would begin in 2024, affecting Weber, Davis, Utah and Washington counties.

The requirement raised an issue for Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Alpine, who contended counties should be able to manage the issue without a mandate from the state. Despite amendments made to the bill, Brammer brought the issue up again during a floor debate in the House on Tuesday.

"These areas and the neighborhoods around them are suffering greatly; because of what's happening in this, our model in Salt Lake County may not be working for everyone else," said Brammer. "That model, by nearly any metric, is not working very well. Whether you're talking about fiscal responsibility, whether you're talking about homelessness outcomes, whatever you're talking about, it is not the best model out there."

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, disagreed.

"We have a lot of communities that don't want to host homeless shelters and don't want homeless camps in their area. I get it, but having all the shelters in one or two cities and then complaining that 'you're not doing it right' is not a solution. I think if you have better solutions, you should come to the table," said Hollins.

Who is in support?

Several city mayors voiced their support for the bill when it appeared in committee on Friday. Among them were Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini.

"I believe that it will improve our process. The mitigation funding is critical — and the important part of this is that cities are paying this much, we're asking the state to match that in a separate appropriation. But the point of this is the cities are stepping up and we're doing this because this is a humanitarian need. People are going to freeze to death if we don't have these shelters; it's really not an ideological choice about keeping people from freezing to death," said Silvestrini.

The bill also received support from members of the Pioneer Park Coalition due to the camping ban enforcement and increase in mitigation funds.

After advancing out of committee, the bill was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Utah House. The bill passed Tuesday afternoon with a 71-1 vote, with Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, being the only "no" vote. It will continue onto the Senate for approval before potentially making its way to the governor's desk.

"The goal is to help people step out of homelessness and back into our community," said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. "We don't want our state to look like Portland, Seattle or San Francisco. And this bill is an attempt to address the impact on communities, but also make sure that individuals have a place to go, particularly during the most cold winter months of the year, and continues to advance the important cause that we're addressing."