The Utah Office of Homeless Services and the Utah Homelessness Council unveiled their new strategic plan to address and reduce homelessness statewide on Monday.

The strategic plan and report were released by State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser and other members of the Utah Homelessness Council at the First Step House.

The process began with the Utah Legislature tasking the groups with creating a statewide plan, beginning with a comprehensive review of homelessness. The review consisted of multiple survey reports, interviews with community leaders, Office of Homeless Services employees, homeless and social service providers, persons with lived experience with homelessness, and other stakeholders by a contracted consulting group.

The consulting group's findings were released on Monday to give a clearer picture of homelessness statewide.

"What we have is maybe not something that everybody likes perfectly but we have a balanced plan. And it's based on housing, it's based on prevention — prevention is a big part of where we need to focus — and it's focused on services and coordination," said Niederhauser. "Coordination is a key to success or planning."

State employees are shown the Central City Apartments. The Utah Homeless Council and Utah Office of Homeless Services launched the state’s new strategic plan to address homelessness statewide during a press conference at First Step house in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 13, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

'No easy one-size-fits-all way forward'

While homelessness can be more visible in Salt Lake City and its surrounding areas, the issue is statewide and pervasive. The report notes that "despite years of focused effort and spending millions of dollars to solve problems, Utah's experience with homelessness has proved to be perpetual and challenging."

The 2022 statewide Point-in-Time Count revealed there were 3,556 sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a given night — but that number doesn't completely capture the full picture of homelessness across the state, the report notes.

A more accurate picture is drawn by the estimated 12,442 people enrolled in homeless services or housing projects in Utah as of April 2022, according to state data. In recent years, homelessness has increased even as funding has been funneled into the issue, revealing the need for a more comprehensive review.

"Homelessness is to be sure a complex problem; there are no simple solutions. There is no easy one-size-fits-all way to go forward," Utah Homeless Council co-chairman Whit Clayton said. "So the plan recognizes the diversity of the problems, the diversity of the people who have experienced homelessness or who are at risk of becoming homeless."

The needs assessment findings explored the diversity of the problem with an examination of homelessness in Utah by categories:

  • Households — Single adults consist of approximately 48% of the people experiencing homelessness, while families make up 30%.
  • Race and ethnicity — Black individuals are only 1% of the state population but represent over 10% of those in the homeless care system. Hispanic or Latino individuals are only 14% of the state population but represent over 23% of those experiencing homelessness. Specific data regarding American Indian/Alaskan Native and Pacific Islander populations were not provided, but they were noted as "overrepresented in the homeless population in Utah."
  • Sex — Males represent a majority of the homeless population in Utah at 57%.
  • Subpopulations — About 48% of people who have experienced homelessness within the last five years in Utah had a disabling condition and approximately 36% of them had a mental health or substance use disorder.
  • Length and type of homelessness — The median time from entry into the care system to placement in permanent housing is 92 days. Of those experiencing homelessness since 2018 and enrolled in the care system, over 55% had a history of being unsheltered. An estimated 39% of people newly entering the care system each year have experienced or will experience unsheltered homelessness.
Shawn McMillen, First Step House Executive Director, makes a comment during a tour of the building as The Utah Homeless Council and Utah Office of Homeless Services launched the state’s new strategic plan to address homelessness statewide during a press conference at First Step house in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 13, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What are the state's goals regarding homelessness?

Based on the needs assessment, the strategic plan identifies several target outcomes to address the key issues, including the lack of permanent housing, homelessness prevention, and providing support and recovery services. The target outcomes by 2027 identified by the report include:

  • Create or identify 574 housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.
  • Increase supportive service interactions by 20%.
  • Reduce the number of people becoming homeless each year by 20%.
  • Reduce homelessness by 7% for vulnerable subpopulations of chronically homeless, veterans, survivors of domestic violence, youth and people with disabilities.

The plan outlines five different goals with strategies for implementation. To gauge the success of each goal and strategy, the report also outlines measurable outcomes for each goal. The five goals include:

  • Increase accessible and affordable permanent housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness across the state.
  • Increase access to and availability of supportive services and case management for people experiencing and at risk of homelessness.
  • Expand homeless prevention efforts by increasing coordination, resources and affordable housing opportunities.
  • Target housing resources and supportive services to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
  • Promote alignment and coordination across multiple systems of care to support people experiencing and at risk of homelessness.

The plan is intended to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. But what has been done already to accomplish this?

"We're already making huge strides in what is a big part of our strategic plan, which is housing," Niederhauser said, pointing to the $55 million dollars secured in the 2022 legislative session and $30 million dollars in the recent session. "There's a lot of things already being done. But again, it's a huge lift. It's an aggressive plan and will take a lot of effort and a coordinated effort."

Wayne Niederhauser, State Homeless Services Coordinator, speaks as The Utah Homeless Council and Utah Office of Homeless Services launched the state’s new strategic plan to address homelessness statewide during a press conference at First Step house in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 13, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Can this be accomplished?

While the plan outlines clear goals and measurable outcomes, along with steps for coordination, there may be stumbling blocks along the way. While much was accomplished in the recent legislative session regarding affordable housing and homeless services, a key piece of failed legislation may present a barrier, homelessness leaders say.

A dedicated funding stream for homeless services was a part of SB260, which failed to pass. Without that funding, Niederhauser believes the plan will not be carried out "the degree we need to."

But ultimately, the newly released strategic plan and comprehensive review represented a starting point for those present.

"I know many times when you start a journey, you're only thinking about where you're going and how you're going to get there. But we must take a minute to look back at where we've been, and see the progress we've made," said businesswoman and philanthropist Gail Miller, a member of the Utah Homelessness Council. "Because it is significant and this is the next step in our progress."