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SALT LAKE CITY — The Trump administration’s homeless czar is praising Utah’s new homeless resource system but says it still needs two vital things — better data sharing and a central leader.
“The improvement that you have made here is just unbelievable compared to where it was,” Robert Marbut, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told Utah leaders Wednesday during a State Homeless Coordinating Committee meeting.
While the number of homeless unsheltered in other Western states is rising, he said Utah’s numbers are decreasing. But there remains room for improvement, Marbut said.
“People are now getting really holistic, thoughtful, strategic and tactical ... and so that’s starting to work. You’re starting to see that when I talked to individuals that were at the doorway and such, they’re getting help that wasn’t very well-organized before. It was very haphazard before, and now it’s much more systematic,” Marbut explained in a visit to the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Tuesday after visits to the three new homeless resource centers.
However, “there will always be fine-tuning,” he said, as needs change while people move through the new system.
The controversial homelessness leader has received criticism for disagreeing with a “housing first” approach to homelessness since his appointment in December.
Marbut told state homeless leaders Wednesday that finding housing for people isn’t effective without helping them work on the issues that led to their homelessness.
Improvements have been made at the “street level” in Salt Lake City, Marbut said, since the opening of smaller homeless resource centers under a model focused on providing integrated services to clients. But breaking the system into scattered sites instead of a central campus comes with the need for a strong, integrated data system.
“Candidly, that’s what’s totally missing now,” Marbut said. “The more spread out your services are, which are doable, the more the virtual campus has to be created.”
Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, which owns the three resource centers, said in a statement: “The system is working a thousand times better than it was six months ago when the transition to the new resource centers started.
“Continued efforts to expand data sharing agreements among the service providers is critical as we continue to tweak and fine tune the new service delivery approach. This takes everyone working together to achieve better outcomes for those experiencing homelessness.”
The centers need to be integrated virtually to make sure bed counts between genders are balanced as the demographic mix changes under the new model, according to Marbut.
“And so then you’re going to have to retweak, and you’re always going to have to ... swing buildings. Now, it’s much more complicated to swing” when a women’s center is below capacity and a men’s center is above capacity, for example, he said.
Sharing information on individuals across all services also allows them to receive help without explaining their story and background to multiple people, and allows the program to track clients’ progress. The data, including case notes, needs to be accessible to those in the program while keeping that data secure, Marbut said.
Centers tend to be concerned about their clients’ privacy, but Marbut said in his work, he’s found that few people choose not to disclose their data when offered help. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, protects people’s personal data, but it can be shared when one signs a disclosure.
The data is also important to track programs’ results.
“If you use data just to be a scorekeeper, that’s not enough. It needs to be a scorekeeper, and a case management tool, where you actually put case management notes into the data system,” according to Marbut.
The state also needs a central leader on homelessness.
“I will say the biggest challenge right now is leadership, and knowing who the boss is, and looking at the data system,” Marbut said.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said the data piece “is a problem we’ve had here in the state of Utah as well, between state and federal agencies and between state agencies themselves.”
The state is in the process of working on it, with pilot programs underway in the intergenerational poverty program. The state is also trying to figure out the leadership aspect, Cox said.
A late 2018 performance audit of Utah’s homelessness services program also found “problems with the data and weak management information systems” that made it difficult to gauge the program’s success.
Jonathan Hardy, Housing and Community Development division director with the Department of Workforce Services, said a bill is in the works to create a “more comprehensive case management system for homeless individuals.”
He told KSL after the meeting he is fully supportive of improving and streamlining data sharing between agencies. Utah does already have a central data-sharing hub, which Marbut praised, Hardy noted.
Part of the barrier to sharing data is the need to open up sharing agreements, according to Hardy. Agencies can already see if a person has stayed somewhere else in the system, but they can’t see what types of services they’ve received, including food stamps and Medicaid. The system is working to increase availability of data across agencies, he said.
But when it comes to the need for a central leader, Hardy believes the system already has what Marbut is calling for.
“As far as kind of the centralized leader, we’re structured exactly like the federal government is structured. In (Marbut’s) office of the interagency council, that’s exactly what the state is. And recognizing that everybody has a role to play in addressing homelessness, it’s really about making sure you set the overarching goals, which is what the State Homeless Coordinating Committee is responsible for here in the state, and then working with our partners collaboratively to address it,” Hardy said.
The transition to the new system came after more than five years of discussion, planning and controversy fraught with politically tough decision-making.
The downtown Road Home shelter, which had housed up to 1,100 emergency beds, shuttered its doors late in November as people experiencing homelessness moved into three new centers, the 300-bed South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center, the 200-bed mixed gender Gail Miller Resource Center, and the 200-bed Geraldine E. King Resource Center.
The move hasn’t come without challenges, including concerns over capacity and even some resistance from some of the homeless. In response to those concerns, a 150-bed emergency shelter was set up in Sugar House that will close in the spring.
Marbut urges Utah to consider expanding its system as it tends to see an influx of people experiencing homelessness migrate during spring and staying sometimes until early fall, and urged leaders to be “proactive” rather than “reactive,” pointing to the temporary emergency shelter.
Before being appointed to his current position, Marbut worked for six years helping on Utah issues pro-bono, he said, and observed the spring inflow of new homeless entering the community.
When the temporary emergency shelter closes in the spring, he said, it will create “a gap of numbers here.”
“There’s probably no magical way to solve that,” he said. “But what I do know is if you don’t take proactive care of dealing with that issue, it’s going to be dumped upon you, and it’s much better to be proactive and get ahead of that rather than being very reactive and such.”
Citing a current debt in the system, he also encouraged leaders to work on a renewal fund to maintain the buildings, calling them “amazing.”
“You want to keep it that way,” he said.
Affordable housing is another issue that needs to be tackled locally, Marbut said. He encouraged the local government to waive all construction fees to streamline the building process, and to look at regulations that are absolutely needed for safety and eliminate those that aren’t.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson thanked Marbut for his engagement with Utah, but said she was concerned that there’s been a reduction in the federal budget for homelessness programs.
“I think we are glass half full in this challenge. I believe we are making progress,” Wilson said, praising those who are working on the issue locally. “We’ve got it figured out, we just need funding.”
Marbut responded that federal funding has risen from $2.5 billion up to just under $6 billion, and that homelessness programs have risen year over year.
“It has not been cut yet,” he said, adding that states and cities haven’t increased funding as much as federal government has, but that the government wants to fund the “right things.”