Utah fumbling homelessness goals, needs major structural overhaul, report says

A homeless man bundles up near a fire on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Tuesday published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)


3 photos

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah policy researchers published a report Tuesday identifying major problems within the state's current homeless governance structure — including "confusing leadership," no statewide plan and incomplete data — and issued a list of recommendations to fix them.

Those include a full restructuring and the creation of a brand new government structure called the Utah Homeless Council and a chief policy adviser for homelessness, called the homeless services officer, to sit on and lead that council.

If implemented, the recommendations in the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report would bring sweeping changes to the governing structure of Utah's homelessness service delivery, and answer calls for clearer leadership — or a homeless "czar" — that caused some fireworks during the Utah Legislature's general session earlier this year.

The report validated concerns that despite tens of millions of dollars being pumped into the issue each year, homelessness in the Beehive State persists with no trackable improvements.

"While Utah has made significant progress in addressing homeless services, problems remain," the report states in a section titled "the problem."

"Despite a major influx in funds toward emergency shelters and resource centers, the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring is not being met," researchers wrote in the report. "Private donors and elected officials are concerned the resources poured into solving these issues have not warranted the expected results. Compared to 2019, individuals experiencing first-time homelessness has increased and the length of stay in shelters increased. The number of Utah's children experiencing homelessness also continues to rise. Local and regional officials and service providers continue to face increasing demand for shelter."

Natalie Gochnour, head of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, in her presentation of the report to the State Homeless Coordinating Committee on Tuesday compared the structure of the new proposed Utah Homeless Council to the body that oversaw Utah's 2002 Winter Olympics, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee committee headed by Mitt Romney.

The new homeless services officer, Gochnour said, must be a "very seasoned person who is committed to best practices in homeless services, who understands the current system, who brings public-private partnerships to the table, who has an empathetic services focus, and makes a commitment to this as a matter of public service."

Those recommendations match what Dr. Robert Marbut, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, emphasized in a virtual meeting hosted Monday night by the Pioneer Park Coalition.

"The big thing I think you've got to think about is how do you manage yourself," Marbut told the coalition, describing how he once met with a Utah editorial board. "They said, 'What do you got to do?' And I said, 'You've got to have a leader.' And they said, 'What do you mean you've got to have a leader?' I said, 'You have no Mitt Romney.' You've got a major problem here and you have no leader on it."

Utah's problem, Marbut said, is too many groups believe they're the leader on the issue.

"You will never get out of this box if everybody thinks they're a leader. They all have different views, they all have different areas, they stumble across each other," Marbut said. "I think you need one, singular leader who has the authority, the independence. ... It can't be an advisory, bureaucratic position. It needs to be a fully empowered position, and you want to pick a really good person to run it who has the clout to get it done."

Tyrell Morris, who is homeless, tends a fire for warmth on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.
Tyrell Morris, who is homeless, tends a fire for warmth on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)

After Gochnour's presentation Tuesday, members of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which would be replaced by the new governing structure, praised the report and its authors for collaborating with members of the committee, along with philanthropic leaders and legislators, in its drafting. No one raised any opposition.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, told KSL in an interview he planned to help sponsor legislation for the Utah Legislature's upcoming 2021 general session to carry out the report's recommendations. He said it's likely legislators will want to adopt changes in line with the report, which was commissioned by the Utah Legislature with the passage of HB440 earlier this year.

"Hopefully the final product ends up being pretty close to what the recommendations are, and if there are changes, hopefully they'll align with the overall effort and goals of what this working group came up with," Anderegg said.

A 2018 audit found Utah was estimated to have spent more than $100 million a year on direct and indirect costs associated with homelessness, but due to "poor data" auditors couldn't track where the state was meeting its goals. Pointing to that audit, Anderegg said there needs to be a "better coordination of resources" to avoid "duplicated effort and wasting money."

"That's exactly what we're trying to do here," he said.

Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who was involved in homelessness issues during his time in legislative leadership and now works with the Pioneer Park Coalition, said he was involved in the working group that helped inform the Kem C. Gardner report. If its recommendations are implemented, he's hopeful it will have big impacts on Utah homelessness.

"I'm probably a little altruistic, but I believe we can make a huge dent in homelessness," he said. "The idea that we can eradicate homelessness may be completely far fetched, but I think we need to have that objective going into this, and we need to be unified to find the solutions, the best practices, and bring the public and private sectors together."

The problems the report lists include:

  • "Confusing leadership structure" with a chain of command that's "not clear."
  • "No statewide plan or comprehensive budget," with an absence of a "coordinated funding and spending plan. As a consequence, Utah's homeless population is trapped in a system that often exhibits redundancies, inefficiencies and service gaps."
  • "Complex, inefficient decision-making framework" that few people understand.
  • "Communication gaps" created by the system's "complexity" that "hinder the state's ability to collect data, measure progress, enact effective policies, coordinate response and share results."
  • "Incomplete data" that "often exclude performance data on prevention and diversion by county, spending data showing cost and service efficiency, and other metrics that can be used to improve outcomes."
  • An "unclear role" of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns Utah's new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County and the board that oversees management of those centers. "Shelter the Homeless plays an important role as a convener, provides a strong community platform and serves as a strong connection to Utah's philanthropic community, the report states. "Its role should be clarified as part of this improvement process."

The report lays out how the state's current homeless services governing structure, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, is a complicated conglomerate that lacks a clear leadership role and is spattered with potential conflict issues.

"Utah's current governance structure includes an amalgamation of well-meaning, but less than optimized entities and community leaders that experience capacity and alignment issues, as well as unnecessary conflicts or potential for conflicts," the report states.

Brandon Stephens watches a fire near his shelter on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.
Brandon Stephens watches a fire near his shelter on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)

Currently, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is comprised of 13 voting members from a variety of state departments and mayors of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Ogden, Midvale, St. George and South Salt Lake, and seven nonvoting members appointed by the governor from local governments, housing authorities, law enforcement, service agencies and a Salt Lake County resident.

To fix these problems, the Kem C. Gardner Institute proposed six "major" recommendations:

  • Restructure top-level governance, or move homeless services out from "deep within the Department of Workforce Services" and house it instead in the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
  • Appoint a full-time homeless services officer to act as "the chief policy officer and adviser for homelessness in the state" who will act as the executive director of the Utah Homeless Council and represents the council to the governor, the Utah Legislature, stakeholders and the public."
  • Create the new governance structure called the Utah Homeless Council.

The council, as explained in the report, would be made up of an executive committee led by the homeless services officer, a "public sector co-chair" appointed by the Legislature, a "private sector co-chair" appointed by the philanthropic consortium, a private sector representative appointed by the governor, the mayor of Salt Lake County, an appointed mayor by and from within the mayors from Salt Lake City, Midvale, South Salt Lake, Ogden or St. George, a statewide philanthropic leader appointed by the governor, and a statewide philanthropic leader appointed by the philanthropic consortium.

The council would also have additional members from state agencies including human services, health, corrections, public safety, workforce services, a representative from both the Utah Senate and Utah House, the superintendent of public instruction, a statewide faith-based leader appointed by the governor, and mayors from Salt Lake City, Midvale, South Salt Lake, Ogden and St. George. It would also include five local representatives from at least two service providers appointed by the Utah Homeless Network and an individual with "lived experience" appointed by the governor.

  • Create a "philanthropic consortium." The report states "leading private funders" in Utah have "already begun collaborating to coordinate funding for homeless services in a more effective manner," and recommended the formal creation of a philanthropic consortium with a "compact outlining aspirational guidelines for the funders."
  • Improve local coordination between the three Utah Continuum of Cares and 13 local homeless councils to better communicate local needs to the state.
  • Develop a "coordinated funding model" to create a yearly "statewide funding plan that builds from local to regional to a consolidated statewide plan. This plan would serve as the backbone of the statewide budget request from the Utah Homeless Council, federal funding and coordinated philanthropic efforts," the report states.

The report was commissioned by the Utah Legislature and the state's philanthropic community — including several Utah business giants like Gail Miller, president and CEO of Zions Bancorp Harris Simmons, Clark Ivory of Ivory Homes, the Eccles family, Josh Romney, and others — and contains a "statement from the benefactors" that urges state officials to develop a better strategy to deal with homelessness.

"Utah faces a critical juncture in homeless services and must get the next steps right," the statement said. "We believe Utah must leave a 'firefighting approach' or hyper focus on shelters behind and shift to a strategic approach that anticipates and accounts for the causes of homelessness. A more attentive and thoughtful approach begins with an improved governance model."

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Katie McKellar

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