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Utah’s next steps for homeless: State still working to site new 800-bed shelter

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Utah’s next steps for homeless: State still working to site new 800-bed shelter

Jun 13, 2024 | 8:08 am ET
By Katie McKellar
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Utah’s next steps for homeless: State still working to site new 800-bed shelter
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People experiencing homelessness hang out in the median on 400 West in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

A panel discussion with Utah’s top homeless official, a lawmaker and a homeless service provider on Monday applauded recent efforts from state and local leaders to improve Utah’s homeless system — but also spotlighted where more work and funding is needed, especially to provide more deeply affordable supportive housing. 

The panel, hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, explored what comes next for Utah’s evolving homeless system — while also highlighting the role a powerful group of philanthropists (called the Utah Impact Partnership) has played to improve Utah’s homeless system. 

Earlier this year, the 2024 Utah Legislature appropriated about $50 million toward bolstering the state’s emergency shelter system. After lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration negotiated to secure the funding — which was a fraction of the $128 million the governor initially sought as part of his budget recommendation — the Utah Impact Partnership agreed to match $15 million more. 

Why a group of powerful philanthropists wants to humanize Utah’s homeless issue

Of that funding, $25 million was set aside for a new “low barrier” (or easily accessible) emergency shelter, at the time described as one that would include 600 to 800 beds. It will be the state’s largest homeless facility since the downtown shelter, previously operated by the Road Home, shuttered in 2019. 

Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president who now serves as State Homeless Coordinator (the point person in Cox’s administration orchestrating state actions around homelessness) told Utah News Dispatch in an interview after Wednesday’s panel that he’s still working to site the new large shelter, with no set timeline on when its location will be announced. 

However, he expects it to be located somewhere in Salt Lake County — and he said it’s possible, depending on the property, that it could be even larger, perhaps 800 to 1,200 beds.

Wednesday’s panel discussion, however, did not focus on that major next step for Utah’s homeless system. Rather, moderator Natalie Gochnour asked panelists Niederhauser, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, and Carol Hollowell, executive director of homeless service provider Switchpoint, to detail what lawmakers have already done to improve coordination with local governments and service providers, as well as what other macro-level policies or investments are needed to “restore dignity and improve the lives” of Utahns experiencing homelessness. 

Niederhauser gave Utah News Dispatch an update on what’s next for the new large emergency shelter he’s still trying to site — and said it’s possible it could be a matter of years, depending on the property, before it could open its doors. 

Status of new emergency shelter? 

As part of the $50 million funded this year for homelessness, the Utah Legislature set aside $25 million for a new “low barrier” emergency shelter, pitched during the legislative session as one that would include 600 to 800 beds. 

Niederhauser has been working to pick a location for the shelter — and he said the need is growing, so if state leaders are able he’s hoping to find a facility that could maybe even shelter a minimum of 800 people and possibly up to 1,200 people. 

Asked about the status of the shelter in an interview after Wednesday’s panel, he told Utah News Dispatch it’s still a work in progress and he declined to provide details about what properties he’s been eying other than saying it’s expected to be sited somewhere in Salt Lake County because “that’s where the need is.” 

“We’ve been looking at a lot of different options,” he said, adding, “it is a frustrating process because land is so expensive and we’re trying to find the right place that will have the least amount of conflict and impact on a surrounding community.” 

Niederhauser said an estimated 800 to 1,200 people are in need of emergency shelter. Over the winter, state and local partners set up about 800 winter overflow beds to provide more capacity (in addition to Salt Lake County’s three homeless resource centers and other permanent shelters across the state). 

This year, state leaders have kept about 450 of those winter overflow beds, but the closure of those other 350 or so beds meant those people went “back on the street,” he said. 

“It really kind of pains me that we’re having to look for more shelter, because we need to be focused on supportive housing. I’d rather have more shelter and more supportive housing, but there’s no other choice,” he said, because Utah’s existing emergency shelters have already been functioning for years at essentially max capacity. 

Pressed for a timeline on the new emergency shelter, Niederhauser would not provide specifics but said, “I hope soon.” 

“I just can’t emphasize (enough) how difficult it is to site a facility like this,” he said. “We’re not letting grass grow under our feet. We’re working on it. Feverishly.” 

However, Niederhauser acknowledged it’s possible, depending on the property that’s chosen and what it will take to make the facility functional, it could be a matter of years before it opens. 

“It may be something that won’t actually be built or come to fruition for a year or maybe two years because it has to be built,” Niederhauser. “What are we going to do in the meantime? That’s also on our minds.” 

It’s possible state leaders will need to find an “interim facility or facilities” to help fill the needs in the meantime, much like what state and local leaders and homeless providers have done during recent winters to provide overflow beds. He said state leaders will be working with the Homeless Services Board to make those decisions. 

More permanent supportive housing

When asked what they’d do  if they could wave a magic wand to fix anything in Utah’s homeless system, Hollowell, the Switchpoint executive director, urged policymakers, providers and other stakeholders to work on building more permanent supportive housing to help move people out of homelessness. Much more — perhaps 10,000 units, she said. 

“It really does come down to housing,” Niederhauser agreed in his answer to the same question, though he added, “It’s not just housing. It’s supportive housing. And sometimes that support may be lifelong support.”

Cullimore emphasized the need for more supported services, in addition to permanent supportive housing, to help people “move on into society” when they’re ready. 

All of that will take much more funding.

When the panel fielded audience questions, Søren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission (a body that aims to protect, restore and plan development for the Jordan River corridor, which has for years grappled with unsanctioned camping by people experiencing homelessness), noted that the 2024 Utah Legislature funded only a fraction of the proposed state funding to execute the governor’s proposed improvements to the state’s homeless system. 

“How do we anticipate implementing the plan when we’re providing somewhere between a half to a third of the funding that we know that we needed?” Simonsen asked. “I know the philanthropic community is stepping up, but there is still a huge gap in completing that plan.” 

Cullimore said the Utah Legislature’s involvement in recent years has been “historic and unprecedented,” noting in the past the state has largely left the issue up to city and counties to tackle on their own. He said state leaders are “working on getting commitments from counties” to add additional funding “as the state continues to invest more.” 

Niederhauser, as a former Senate president, said he knows it’s “hard to balance all of the needs” for state spending. He credited philanthropists for sparking more commitment and investments. 

“We got more funding than we’ve ever (received) before,” Niederhauser said, adding that state leaders, along with the newly revamped Utah Homeless Services Board, are “taking the steps that we need to” in order to establish more accountability and performance measure to support more state investment in the future. 

“I think people will start to see the success and say, ‘We want to continue to support that.’ But if we don’t have the outcomes at the end of the day, it’s going to be hard to raise the funds you need to make these things happen,” Niederhauser said. 

In his interview with Utah News Dispatch after Wednesday’s panel discussion, Neiderhauser said the most important thing the new Utah Homeless Services Board can do to improve Utah’s homeless system is to “unify” around “common goals towards getting people treatment, housing” and preventing homelessness from occurring in the first place. 

One of the board’s first hefty tasks is to set new performance and accountability measures on homeless providers to track whether they’re helping rehabilitate people out of homelessness rather than warehousing them. Last week, the governor put homeless providers on notice, saying if they don’t produce results showing they’re helping the state toward its goal to reduce homelessness, they could lose public funding. 

Utah Gov. Cox to homeless providers: Produce results, or you could lose funding

 

“We need to know what’s working and what’s not working,” Niederhauser said. “That’s part of what the board’s mandate is, but it is pretty broad and really high-level. Getting us all coordinated and unified and making sure we are getting those outcomes, when we have the capacity to address the causes of homelessness.” 

Niederhauser said the board’s executive committee will start meeting next week to hash out out the “nitty gritty” details, then in coming months they’ll bring those proposals to the full board to discuss publicly. 

“One of the things we’re going to start off with right now is we’re going to take the different responses to homelessness, like emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing — and we’re going to talk about, ‘Well what should the outcomes be? What are the expectations?’” he said. “We need to start there, with what the outcomes should be and what the expectation should be.”

Then, Niederhauser said the board will “bring the providers in and discover how we’re going to meet those outcomes, meet those expectations.” 

Asked about how soon the board aims to set these performance measures, Niederhauser said it’s something board members hope to accomplish in coming months and within the next year. 

“We’re energizing getting something done now,” he said. “I think the more we can show the greater resources are going to be available (from) the Legislature (and) through the philanthropic community.”