Guest opinion: A new path forward to help Utah’s homeless

Walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, we see an astonishing number of fellow Utahns living on the street. Many of them are plagued with severe drug addiction and many suffer from deep mental health challenges. All of them are suffering due to the unforgiving cold of winter along with the trauma and violence of street living. Seeing such startling despair right in front of our eyes begs many Utahns to ask how we can do better when it comes to serving our brothers and sisters living on the margins. Former HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp offered key insight into how we ought to address poverty in our communities. He said, “We ought to define compassion not by measuring how many people receive aid, but rather by the number of people who no longer need it.” 

Today in 2021, we as Utahns are faced with a similar choice. Paradoxically, as our state spends millions and millions on homelessness every single year, we are still seeing homelessness grow. It’s clear we need to review the principles and philosophy our homeless services are operating on and ensure our resources are being used most effectively in helping our most vulnerable citizens. 

Last month, the Legislative Auditor General’s office published an audit titled: An In-Depth Follow-Up of the Oversight and Management of Utah’s Homeless Services System. In the report, legislative auditors identified key findings that we need to address before we can hope to end homelessness in Utah. 

In 2017 when the resource center model was put into place, the system designated resource centers as an emergency shelter where individuals would come to stabilize, get safe, and get the resources they need to return to independent living. By connecting social workers, case managers, and community partners, this new service model would help individuals experiencing homelessness get back on their feet and spend just a short amount of time living in the resource center. 

Unfortunately, the November audit highlighted that the system is not working how it was designed. On any given night, 62% of the beds at The Road Home are used by homeless clients who are staying at the shelter longer than 6 months. If our system was working effectively, we would see a higher level of “client flow”: moving to permanent supportive housing, permanent housing, treatment, or rapid rehousing. Instead, we continue to see a trend of long-term residents at the resource centers. If our state’s goal is simply to just house folks – we are doing a good job and we ought to just keep investing millions and millions of dollars every year with no end in sight. However, if our goal is to help homeless individuals move to independent living, we need to change course. 

The legislative auditors made precise and practical recommendations we can act on. The legislative auditors specifically recommended that the Office of Homeless Services consider measuring “client flow” as a successful outcome. Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s Homeless Coordinator, has already spoken in favor of this. When we can accurately measure these critical data points, we can identify gaps in the system. When we identify gaps in the system, we can address these issues with razor-sharp precision and help more people change their life for the better. 

We as The Pioneer Park Coalition recognize that each Utahn experiencing homelessness faces a unique set of challenges most of us will never be able to understand. We also believe in inspiring people to live up to their full potential and supporting them in their journey wherever that begins. If the Utah Homeless Council and the Office of Homeless Services want to help our most vulnerable citizens out of intergenerational poverty and into independent living, they can begin by measuring client flow and other analytical tools to address the critical gaps in our system.

Dr. Amy J. Hawkins, Scott Howell, Dave Kelly, and Tyler Clancy

The Pioneer Park Coalition