Lawmakers Growing Impatient with Downtown Homeless Situation

SLC HomelessIt wasn’t said in these exact words, but it was evident to many involved in aTuesday public hearing before Utah legislative leaders that Salt Lake City and County bosses – all Democrats – have maybe until the January start of the GOP-controlled Legislature to provide some “real, measurable” results on improving the area around the Rio Grande homeless shelters or state funds may not flow like local officials want.

There’s been much bad press these past few summer months around those near-westside operations – police officers injured, the homeless victimized by drug dealers and their enforcers, some people stabbed. A fatal shooting.

A bipartisan effort provided $9.4 million in one-time and ongoing funds in the 2016 session – with House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser putting their personal reputations on the line for the cash.

Both men were complimentary of efforts by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (up for re-election this year) and freshman Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski – who head up the state’s homeless working group.

But both men also told the mayors that the financial clock is running.

It is envisioned that up to $27 million in state aid will go to homeless operations over the next few years.


The state’s money must “change lives” down around the Rio Grande, “or this (money) will not continue,” said Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

Message received, McAdams told UtahPolicy in the hallway after the meeting of the Legislative Management Committee, made up of GOP and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate.

“There is urgency to see improved outcomes,” said McAdams, whose own government has promised around $11 million toward the effort of finding new “rapid” housing for homeless combined with a “unique” effort in fighting crime around the Road Home and other shelters around 200 South and 400 South and 300 West to 600 West area – the so-called Rio Grande homeless district.

Salt Lake City government has promised money, as well.

Several businesses have closed in the area in the past few months, even more over the last year.

Hughes, R-Draper, like Niederhauser a champion of state homeless funding in the 2016 Legislature, said what can’t be allowed to continue is a business associate of his coming to his 900 West office telling him he was just chased down the street by a ruffian brandishing hedge sheers.

Hughes said: “I saw a drug deal go down” while he was visiting the area this year “next to a baby in a stroller.”

Biskupski declined to say exactly what the “unique” law enforcement efforts will start in late October, early November.

The plan “has not been seen” in Utah before, she added, believing it will be effective with a “substantial” impact.

Tuesday night, in a closed meeting, Biskupski said she would present a number of possible Salt Lake City sites for selected homeless populace temporary housing. She said she hopes up to five sites can ultimately be agreed upon by the council, and by next spring actual building or remodeling begin.

But the siting is only part of the political problem.

McAdams said much better outcomes must come with the “comprehensive reform” of dealing with the homeless.

Niederhauser warned if measurable outcomes don’t come, and come in a reasonable time, then the fear of some on Capitol Hill that the state’s $27 million “will just be burned” on building more shelter beds, without changing lives, may take hold.

Even some Democratic legislators warned McAdams and Biskupski – both of whom served in the Democratic legislative leadership in the past – that care must be taken in siting the new homeless facilities.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, pointedly said that her city has had homeless apartments, working well, for 15 years or more.

And other communities must step up and take some of the Rio Grande homeless populations before McAdams and Biskupski look to a new, bigger number of homeless beds in West Valley.

McAdams said when you add up all the money the state, county, cities, and charities spend on dealing with the homeless in the state’s largest county, around $52 million a year is spent on the problem in Salt Lake County.

And while much good is being done – much of it outside of TV and newspaper coverage – what folks are seeing around the Rio Grande area is unacceptable.

“We will watch” the state’s funding, said Niederhauser, understanding that it is a long-term effort to change just putting the homeless in beds, rather dealing with their core problems, drug abuse, mental health, joblessness, and other difficult issues, must take place.

That is exactly the approach his group is taking, said McAdams.

“Turning the dial” to deal with these core issues is what will help further state funding, said Niederhauser.

It will, ultimately, cost much more than $27 million just to build new homeless beds, even more, to construct the systems to “stop folks at the door” of homelessness and turn them into housing, help with addiction needs and other problems.

But legislative leaders made it clear the clock is ticking, and data-based improvements must come as the 2017 Legislature looks at spending more money on homelessness.