Cox touts need for data, results in homeless services

From left, Greg Hughes at a panel with Salt Lake Police Sgt. Nathan Meinzer, Christian Sarver and Eva Witesman at Solutions Utah’s conference “Ending Homelessness in Utah” at the Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

From left, Greg Hughes at a panel with Salt Lake Police Sgt. Nathan Meinzer, Christian Sarver and Eva Witesman at Solutions Utah’s conference “Ending Homelessness in Utah” at the Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The idea of holding Utah's homeless service providers accountable for their results — and holding homeless community members accountable for their situation — is seen by some leaders and law enforcement members as a possible solution to homelessness.

That was the theme Thursday at a conference held by Solutions Utah, formerly Pioneer Park Coalition, a Salt Lake City-based homelessness mitigation advocacy group.

Keynote speaker Gov. Spencer Cox set the stage for discussions about accountability — and legislation passed earlier this year that requires service providers to improve their data collection and dissemination to the public agencies that fund them.

"As a society in many of our largest cities, policymakers and some of the most compassionate people have just decided that we're not only going to show compassion, but we're actually going to help people who are suffering suffer even more than their suffering — that we're going to keep giving them not just permission to suffer, but we're going to aid and abet them in their suffering," Cox said.

But compassion needs to be paired with accountability, he said. The state can add more housing, shelter and recovery services "to provide everything that a person needs," he said, "but if they choose not to do those things, then we have to hold them accountable."

New law pushing data-driven benchmarks

Cox gave a nod to Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, who sponsored HB298, aimed at creating more accountability in the state's homeless services.

The bill passed by this year's Legislature replaced the 29-member Utah Homelessness Council with a nine-member board and changed the way funding is dispensed, placing more emphasis on service providers proving their success through data and benchmarks, among other things. More funding will go to "successful programs and providers" through the bill.

Both homeless community members and homeless services providers need to be held accountable along with mayors, county commissioners, the governor and other officials, Cox said.

"It's going to be really hard because some really great people are going to lose their funding. So either make sure what you're doing is working, or figure out something else to do really quickly," Cox said.

Some criticized the new focus on data during a panel discussion.

"Data should be used to help providers to learn and not to punish them. If we discover that some program that has been running is not effective, there should be space for those organizations to learn, change, grow and improve their metrics rather than simply being defunded," said Eva Witesman, director of the Ballard Center for Social Impact.

"Sometimes, we can create perverse outcomes that are actually worse for the people with lived experience because we're trying so hard to achieve our metrics," she continued, "because that's how they're measured, and that's how we get funded."

Even when data is available, the way it's analyzed can also pose an issue, she said.

"These are things that we under-resource. Even when we're talking about legislation, we're now demanding data," Witesman said. "We have organizations that are essentially facing what can be something that looks like an unfunded mandate, where they're expected to demonstrate outcomes, but they don't have anyone in the organization who knows how to measure for outcomes."

Salt Lake Police Sgt. Nathan Meinzer explained how data can be helpful for law enforcement when responding to homelessness.

Meinzer, who has been specially assigned to the homeless resource centers and manages a team of officers in the area, said he uses data around the busiest times and days of the week to gauge staffing needs.

"The difficulty is I would love more to be able to understand all the totality of each individual — 'What more can I know to have a better reaction and a better outcome for you?' Because it's possible that the best reaction for me to do is take police action and take them to jail but not always," he said. "Sometimes that individual might be better served, better supported, by taking different action, utilizing more resources and providing options for them."

Addiction and substance abuse

Another panel included several speakers who struggled with substance abuse and homelessness, including the Other Side Academy executive director Dave Durocher, whose substance abuse program has a 90% graduation rate.

Durocher emphasized the importance of identifying those who need mental health services and offering them help.

"Get those who are on the streets, who have severe mental health issues ... that help that they need immediately. Every other drug addict, including myself, I always knew I had two options: Keep using, (or) ask for help," he said.

Adults with substance abuse disorders account for 25.7% of Utah's homeless population, according to state data from the 2023 Point-In-Time Count.

Cox also listed recent efforts in homeless mitigation, including 27,000 hours spent by workers on mitigation efforts including abatements, drug suppression efforts and direct engagement.

"These are real people with real stories, and they deserve our help. They also deserve our respect, and by treating them and holding them accountable, it shows that we do believe in them, that we do care about them, that there is something better for them," Cox said.

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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