SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Greg Hughes said Wednesday that recent violent incidents in downtown Salt Lake have convinced him the state needs a homelessness czar to assume ultimate responsibility for issues surrounding Utah's transient population, including crime and drug abuse.
The office of Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams signaled support for the idea, and Salt Lake City officials said they were open to hearing more about it, though both painted somewhat more optimistic pictures than Hughes about how the problem of homelessness is being handled in their jurisdictions.
Hughes said he has felt particularly vexed in recent days, partly thanks to police reports of a homeless man attacking and injuring Las Vegas 51s Triple-A pitcher Joshua Cruz at 500 S. West Temple and a woman crashing into six pedestrians, killing one, on a sidewalk just north of the Road Home shelter.
"I'm telling you, we've just got to appreciate the magnitude of what's going on," Hughes told KSL. "It's just got me to a point where — we have to do more."
Hughes said he is "very much" supportive of the idea of a single state official being held accountable for the success of city, county, Legislature and nonprofit efforts to curb homelessness through various initiatives.
"Someone's got to coordinate all these efforts and show they're (either) making a difference or wasting our money," he said.
Gov. Gary Herbert's staff said he was on a tour of rural Utah and unavailable to comment on Hughes' plan
Pressed for details about how such a position might be created, how someone would be chosen for the job and specifically how Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County would account their efforts to the homelessness czar, Hughes said his idea is in its infancy.
"There's not a set strategy in place. ... I don't have that template set in my mind," Hughes said.
City and county response
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the mayor is open to the idea and will talk with Hughes to "get an understanding of what (Hughes) believes the benefits will be."
"The mayor has said we are willing to listen to any idea as long as it's vetted, funded and working. ... I'm sure the mayor is going to reach out to Speaker Hughes to talk about this idea, as they talk about all ideas," Rojas said.
Alyson Heyrend, spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said the county would welcome a state czar.
"I know the mayor believes in collaboration and the mayor believes in working together, so he would have no problem working with a state homelessness czar," Heyrend said.
If Speaker Hughes thinks there's a path forward with someone who can wrangle all the jurisdictions, maybe he's correct.
–Alyson Heyrend, SL County mayor's spokeswoman
She noted that McAdams believes the county "has done as much as it conceivably feels it has been able to do" in addressing homelessness. But even he, as chairman of the influential Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee, cannot enforce policy decisions that are not in his jurisdiction, Heyrend said.
"We've also tried to collaborate with all the jurisdictions, with the city, with the state, with the providers with nonprofits and business leaders," she said. "But perhaps it takes somebody with some sort of overarching clout. ... If Speaker Hughes thinks there's a path forward with someone who can wrangle all the jurisdictions, maybe he's correct."
Hughes believes a state official in a homelessness czar position would be well-suited to make final decisions when the proposed solutions of various stakeholders, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, come into direct conflict with one another because of constituents' demands.
Differences in optimism
Hughes said recent hearings at the Capitol have left him and other legislators less-than convinced that significant progress has been made in curbing chronic crime and drug issues in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
"I think we're doing a really good job of fulfilling the budgetary requests, but I'm becoming more than disheartened when I had a meeting last week and was told by important stakeholders in this effort that things are getting actually worse. And then we had a holiday weekend like we had," he said.
Hughes was similarly discouraged while touring the area Wednesday with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, where he said he witnessed brazen drug transactions.
"You can't go there without seeing it happen," he said. "I saw it multiple times today."
But Heyrend and Rojas, both of whom praised the speaker for his support at the state level of efforts to address homelessness, disagreed with his characterizations that problems have been worsening.
"We realize that there's very high-profile incidents but ... crime is actually down 6 percent in that area" compared to last year, Rojas said.
Rojas and Heyrend each cited the new availability of additional Salt Lake County Jail beds as one reason to be both optimistic and patient with regard to various homelessness initiatives in the works.
"When it comes to crime ... that is an area where we're still putting the wheels in place, (an) example (being) finding more jail beds," Heyrend said.
Those beds just recently became available on June 9, thanks to state funding, Rojas said, but Salt Lake City police are already reporting a 22 percent jump in bookings compared to this time last year. He said bookings not only lead to more effective law enforcement, but expanded opportunity to offer social services to suspects who are booked rather than simply issued a citation.