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What’s next for Utah’s evolving homeless shelter system

Five years after closure of downtown shelter, Utah is using $25 million to open a new large emergency shelter. Where will it go — and what’s different this time?

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 13, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

People experiencing homelessness camp outside the Main Library in Salt Lake City on Friday, January 5, 2024.

In just five years, Utah’s homeless system has transformed so much, it’s almost unrecognizable.

Now, even more changes are coming.

One of the biggest? Plans to use some of the state’s newly set aside $25 million for a new 600- to 800-bed emergency homeless shelter located somewhere in the state. Leaders plan to choose a location in coming months.

It will be the biggest homeless facility seen since a larger emergency shelter located in downtown Salt Lake City was shut down in 2019.

So what’s next? And why are state officials now moving ahead with a larger facility, even though years ago the goal was to operate smaller shelters scattered across the state?

To answer that question, it helps to look back in time.

How Utah’s homeless system has changed

In 2019, critics were skeptical of plans to replace that downtown homeless shelter with three smaller homeless resource centers. Some worried the new centers (at the time capped at about 700 beds combined between all three) wouldn’t be enough to accommodate the downtown Road Home’s emergency shelter capacity, which some nights kept over 1,000 people off of the streets.

But adamant about shutting down what they considered was an unruly, difficult to manage facility that was fueling chaos and crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, local and state officials moved ahead with their plan to replace that emergency shelter with a “scattered sites” model. By breaking up the downtown shelter’s population into smaller, more carefully designed facilities, they hoped the new centers would better triage people into services that would fit their needs without having as much of an impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

Yet sure enough, soon after the downtown shelter closed in late 2019 once all three of the new centers were up and running, it didn’t take long for their capacity to essentially max out. Services meant to “divert” people out of those new shelters — be it supportive housing, mental health services or drug treatment — have also been strained. Meanwhile, Utah’s homeless population has continued to grow.

For the next several years, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called on state leaders and other cities to play more of a part and treat homelessness as a “statewide issue.” Slowly but surely, some cities have come along. While Salt Lake City used to be the only city pushing for more emergency shelter and winter overflow beds, the Legislature in recent years passed laws to require major counties to create winter overflow plans. Cities like Millcreek and West Valley City have helped, and now even cities like Sandy are playing a part in the larger system.

In recent years, the state has also taken a more active lead. Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president, has been serving as the State Homeless Coordinator since he was appointed in 2021. Today, he’s the point person in Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration orchestrating and negotiating state legislation and funding to bolster Utah’s homeless system.

As pressures continue to mount on both Utah’s housing market and its homeless population, local and state officials have slowly expanded homeless shelter availability in a variety of forms in and outside of Salt Lake City while also grappling with festering frustrations about on-street camping.

But it hasn’t kept pace with Utah’s growing homeless population. The state’s chronic homelessness has increased 96% since 2016, with a 27% surge in the past year alone, according to a letter the powerful philanthropist group called the Utah Impact Partnership issued to lawmakers during the 2024 session. For that number, the group cited an “exhaustive review” of Utah’s homeless services using data from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

By funding a larger facility this year, state leaders are now addressing in a big way what advocates have been saying for years as the state has been transitioning to this new system: Utah needs more permanent homeless shelter capacity.

But at the same time, legislators this year also angled to take a more holistic approach — by not just focusing on emergency shelter, but also behavioral and mental health issues.

When acknowledging strides over the past several years to revamp and expand Utah’s homeless system, Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit that helps low-income Utahns, credited lawmakers for their efforts.

“When everything is online, we will have a much more robust homeless services system than we’ve had — ever,” Tibbitts said. “More beds. More services. … We will clearly have the most beds for getting people indoors in the winter and in the summer when it’s really hot and people are at risk of having heat stroke.”

While Tibbitts said he would like to see more ongoing money devoted to deeply affordable housing that’s “really needed” to help move more people out of homelessness, Tibbitts said he thinks lawmakers “funded the things that will have the biggest impact.”

Over $50 million for emergency homeless services

This year, the governor made homelessness a centerpiece issue in his recommended budget, seeking $128 million for homelessness, including $12.7 million in ongoing money and $115.3 million in one-time money as part of a three-year plan to bolster the state’s emergency shelter system.

Even though Republican legislative leaders spent much of the 2024 session saying there wouldn’t be enough funding this year for all of the governor’s asks — while never budging on a $167 million income tax cut — in the end Niederhauser was able to secure a total of over $50 million in additional state spending for emergency shelter.

That includes:

  • $25 million for “low barrier shelter,” some of which will be used to fund a new emergency homeless shelter with 600 to 800 beds sited somewhere in the state (its location has yet to be determined).
  • $21.8 million ($10 million in ongoing money and $11.8 in one-time money) for the statewide homeless system, which will be distributed across the state through a competitive grant process overseen by the Utah Homelessness Council.
  • $2.5 million in ongoing money to help cities that host homeless shelters mitigate their impacts on public safety, emergency services and other costs.
  • An estimated $2 million (perhaps as much as $4 million) in new ongoing funding thanks to a provision in the year’s omnibus alcohol bill, which will establish a program at state liquor stores to ask customers whether they’d like to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund.

While it’s not the full $128 million the governor initially proposed, Cox told Utah News Dispatch he thought the 2024 session went “very well” for homelessness support.

“Obviously we didn’t get as much as we had asked for, but we assumed that would be the case,” he said. “We got what we needed, and we’re really excited about that, to be able to fill some of those gaps.”

Cox told reporters on the last night of the session that lawmakers’ investments will allow his office to implement a “statewide, first-of-its-kind initiative to significantly increase the number of shelter beds that are available.”

Niederhauser said the over $50 million is still “a lot of money, and we’re grateful for it.” In addition, private partners with the Utah Impact Partnership agreed to match $15 million more.

“It will get us a long way,” Niederhauser said. However, he added, “now we have to prioritize” because it’s not “sufficient to do everything we wanted to do.”

So now, these are the top actions Niederhauser said he’ll be prioritizing over the coming weeks and months with the new funding:

  • Sustaining the state’s current homeless system.
  • Ensuring Sandy’s new shelter for seniors and medically vulnerable homeless people stays open. It was previously only funded through June.
  • Funding additional family shelter space at the Motel 6 purchased last year in South Salt Lake that’s currently being renovated.
  • Continue the state’s “micro shelter” program, meant to offer an option to people who have resisted congregate shelters due to anxiety being around large groups. Currently the state is operating a temporary, 50-bed micro shelter pilot program at 600 West and 300 South in Salt Lake City. Now, with new state funding Niederhauser hopes to open a permanent, 50- to 100-bed micro shelter site on state-owned land along 700 West beneath 500 South freeway onramps.
  • With $25 million, site a new 600- to 800-bed emergency homeless shelter somewhere in the state. Since that process will likely take months and the shelter isn’t likely to be up and running until next year, Niederhauser wants to also use some of that funding to keep shelter for people who are currently using about 400 temporary winter overflow beds that were slated to close in April.

Neiderhauser expects state officials will be able to accomplish all of those priorities thanks to what the Utah Legislature funded and philanthropists donated this year.

But there’s a big lift ahead: deciding where that new 600- to 800-bed shelter will go.

“We’ve got to have a location, to answer the question ‘where,'” Niederhauser said. “It’s just very difficult to locate a place, because we can’t pay a lot for the property.” He said they’re considering land owned by the Utah Department of Transportation and other publicly-owned parcels, but he didn’t name any specific candidates.

Cox said his office will start that process “and move it along as quickly as we possibly can.”

Why open a large facility, and can the state prevent it from becoming problematic?

With up to 800 beds, the new emergency shelter will be the largest homeless facility the state has seen since the Road Home’s downtown shelter shuttered in 2019.

When asked why the decision was made to site such a large shelter — even though the goal in 2019 was to implement a smaller, scattered sites homeless services model — Niederhauser told Utah News Dispatch it’s meant to address needs in the state’s homeless system in a practical way.

“It’s just so difficult to site shelters,” Niederhauser said. Asked whether this new facility can be executed without the same concerns that troubled the downtown Road Home shelter, he said, “We feel like we can do a congregate shelter with those many beds. It’s more of a design issue. When you looked at the (downtown) building, it was never designed as a shelter.”

That Rio Grande shelter had many smaller rooms that were difficult to manage and supervise, Niederhauser said. “There are better designs for shelter,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of different designs, and we think this can work if we have the right location.”

The governor and legislators were also adamant about encouraging cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances — an issue that can be legally problematic if there isn’t available space for homeless individuals to go. By expanding emergency shelter capacity, along with adding capacity to non-congregate shelters like the micro shelter program, Niederhauser said the hope is to empower cities to get more people off of the streets.

“It is our goal and objective to have a place for everybody to go so that there is no camping,” he said. “We feel like it’s the worst thing that we can accept as a society — people living in places unfit for human habitation. We would like to end that as much as possible. But we do have to answer that question: Where do people go?”

Niederhauser said state and local officials have “proven now, over the last two winters, when we have the additional (overflow) beds, that people do go into shelter. They want to be there, and will get off the street.”

This winter, with over 600 overflow beds available, Niederhauser said “there was a lot less camping because there were places for people to go.”

What else the 2024 Utah Legislature did for homelessness, mental health

The Utah Legislature this year passed a slew of bills dealing with a variety of issues relating to homelessness, including inserting accountability measures into the state’s homeless system and overhauling its managing body, and encouraging cities to enforce no-camping ordinances by potentially withholding state funds.

Lawmakers also acknowledged mental and behavioral health are priorities that should be considered within the state’s homeless system, passing bills that strengthen the state’s civil commitment laws and bolster programs to help transition people from the criminal justice system.

Some of the most noteworthy bills that lawmakers passed included:

  • HB298, to change the current Utah Homelessness Council to the Utah Homeless Services Board, specify that the state’s goal is to reach a “functional zero” level of homelessness (meaning the number of people exiting homelessness is greater than those entering homelessness), while injecting performance and accountability measures on programs meant to reduce homelessness, substance abuse, on-street camping and other issues.
  • HB299, a mental health bill that calls for a study on the Utah State Hospital and the state’s capacity for court-ordered treatment, including civil commitment, while also increasing the amount of time a patient experiencing mental illness can be involuntarily held, up from 24 hours to 72 hours.
  • HB421 allows the state’s Homeless Services board to withhold state funding from cities that don’t enforce anti-camping ordinances or laws against panhandling in traffic. It also uses $2.5 million to start a new pilot program called HOME Court, meant to provide court-supervised treatment and services to people experiencing mental illness in Salt Lake County. Cox called for this program in his budget recommendation as a “less restrictive, civil option for individuals with mental illness who do not meet the standard for civil commitment or other criminal diversion courts.”

Cox said the new HOME Court program “will allow us to hold people accountable and get them more services and more shelter, so now we can now enforce the no-camping ordinances throughout the valley and throughout the state.”

“So this will be a win for everyone.”

Lawmakers also funded over $11 million in new behavioral health programs, including $8.2 million for a “step-down” facility for individuals with severe mental illness, $2.3 million to help address behavioral health workforce gaps, $351,200 for opioid-related supportive housing, as well as $185,000 for behavioral health licensee support, according to the governor’s office.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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