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Audit: Utah's homeless system more safe with new model, but crime remains an issue

Audit: Utah's homeless system more safe with new model, but crime remains an issue

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has made vast improvements in Salt Lake County shelters since a "scathing" state audit three years ago found major health and security issues, but crime hasn't been eradicated within the system despite the implementation of a new model, auditors said Monday.

Providers need to do more to reduce criminal activity, as problems with drug use, theft, assault and "other kinds of criminal activity" in the shelters still exist. Many residents suffer from drug addiction and/or mental illness, and some have "extensive criminal records," James Behunin, senior audit supervisor, told members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee made up of Senate and House leadership at the state Capitol.

The follow-up report comes after the former downtown Road Home shelter closed in 2019 to make way for three new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Midvale. Behunin called conditions "greatly improved" at those facilities compared to the downtown shelter.

"And one of the benefits of starting over is that you can incorporate designs and functions into a new setting that are specific to some of your needs, such as security," he said.

The older shelter had "nooks and crannies" where people could hide, but the new centers have more security cameras and windows that allow for surveillance, according to Behunin. Increased storage space for clients' belongings has led to a decrease in theft, he said.

An enhanced screening process improved safety and security, Behunin said, as clients need to pass through a magnetometer and put their bags and coats into a bin for inspection by guards. They also need to show there's nothing hidden in their socks or waistband, Behunin said. Guards report "every incidence when they find drugs on these folks, and there's a fair amount of that found," he said, adding that shows that it's an "effective process."

Acknowledging that shelters will always need to deal with clients trying to bring drugs in or engage in other criminal activity, Behunin said more stringent screening needs to take place.

In reports, interviews and surveillance footage, auditors saw that drug use still remains rampant. About half of clients interviewed said they've seen evidence of drug use within the resource centers, and one man even said he had used drugs in the facility himself, Behunin said.

"In addition, we observed evidence of drug use ourselves," he said.

When auditors visited the men's resource center with officers, the officers pointed out the scent of the drug "spice," and the group saw a man passed out "apparently from the effects" of the drug, Behunin told legislators.

That's despite the improved screening process put in place in the new centers. Auditors observed some items not getting thoroughly searched when guests entered the facilities — and some guests went into the buildings without appearing to get screened at all, Behunin said.

He urged homelessness resource providers to resume bringing police dogs in to sniff for drugs as soon as it's safe in the pandemic to resume the practice. He also encouraged them to reevaluate staffing requirements, which currently call for at least one security guard for every 90 clients. More consistent policies are also needed in the centers for when a client is found with drugs or violates another rule, as current policies aren't always enforced, Behunin said.

The auditors also recommended more communication and collaboration between resource center administrators and law enforcement.

South Salt Lake and Midvale both created homeless outreach teams to dedicate more time to ensuring safety around the shelters, Behunin noted, which has led to a "great improvement" in safety around the shelters compared to the downtown shelter.

Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless and vice chairwoman of Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, which owns the three resource centers, said that since opening they've helped the state work toward its goal of making homelessness "brief, rare and nonrecurring."

During the pandemic, the centers were a "safe environment" for clients and kept infection rates low, Hopkins said.

But she called it "a good time" for administrators to review procedures, and said they're working to address each of the auditors' recommendations.

During the 2021 general session, lawmakers passed a bill to restructure the state's homelessness governance model and create a central leader on the issue.

Gov. Spencer Cox recently appointed former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser as state homeless services coordinator. After hearing the auditors' report, Niederhauser said "we're just very happy that there's been tremendous improvement made."

"If we don't have a good exit strategy for people out of the resource centers … then our bottleneck is going to be the resource centers. We won't be able to build enough resource centers to handle all the need out there. And so what seems to be, at least for me at this point, one of the objectives that we should have is getting people that come into the resource center out of the resource center as quickly as possible into some kind of a more permanent situation," he said.

Niederhauser expressed concern, however, that if it's too difficult to get into a resource center, many homeless will remain on the streets.

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