Can Utah commit to reducing homelessness before hosting another Olympics?
Salt Lake City police officers patrol as Salt Lake County Health Department workers clean up homeless encampments at 500 West and 400 South streets in Salt Lake City. As homelessness rises in Salt Lake County, officials met at a poverty summit Saturday to discuss ways to reduce homelessness. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes
MILLCREEK — Religious leaders, attorneys and elected officials asked what it would take to reduce homelessness in Salt Lake County as the state prepares to potentially host more Olympics.
The question, and many attempts to answer it, was posed during a poverty summit held Saturday by the Crossroads Urban Center at Christ United Methodist Church. The summit featured presentations from state and local governments on current plans to reduce rising demand.
“If we don’t start planning now, we certainly won’t be ready by 2030, we might not be ready by 2034. Time is of the essence if we don’t want more people camping out when the world comes to visit us then we need to start working on it now and we’re starting to work on it,” said Bill Tibbitts , Associate Director of the Urban Crossroads Center.
The problem of homelessness is often seen as “complex” and “multifaceted”, requiring multiple approaches and strategies to truly solve it. But as the state continues to invest in reductions — the Utah legislature committed a record $70 million in the 2022 session — homelessness continues to rise.
A 2022 homelessness report by the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Office of Homeless Services found that the number of homeless people is increasing, with the number of Utah residents experiencing homelessness for the first time increasing by 14% from 2020-2021 .
In 2021, about 12,023 people received homeless services in Salt Lake County — many of them children.
State officials point to the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, skyrocketing housing costs, housing shortages and population growth as possible reasons for the rise. Advocates and religious leaders have narrowed down the cause of homelessness to one thing — lack of housing or the ability to pay for it.
An analysis released by the Government Accountability Office in 2020 found that a $100 per month increase in median rent will increase homelessness in this community by 9%. In the last three years, the average monthly rent in Salt Lake County has increased by nearly $300.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has requested 2,950 units to meet current needs to reduce homelessness. These units include: 600 permanent support housing units, 1,000 short-term quick housing assistance units, 200 shared apartments, 900 ultra-affordable units, and 150 permanent subsidized units.
The Crossroads Urban Center aims to reach the number of units before the state potentially hosts Olympics in 2030 or 2034.
“I don’t think we really have that much time. I know they want to keep things practical and doable, but belief is not practical. He is visionary,” said Rev. Curtis Price of First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. “How about 2,950 units before we build another prison? Before we gentrify another neighborhood, build another luxury skyscraper, or build another freeway?”
In a panel discussion, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, Utah State Homelessness Coordinator Wayner Nierdauser, Salt Lake City Homelessness Coordinator Andrew Johnston, and Dina Blaes of Salt Lake County Regional Development discussed current efforts to reach that number.
“I’m only saying this because I want you to know that our local leadership is busy solving our state’s problems. But as mayor, I think this is a critical issue,” said Silvestrini. “But it’s also important to my 63,000 voters that garbage is collected, that there’s police protection, that there’s fire protection, that we have running water and sewerage and paved roads and so on and so on.”
The mayor said that while there are many issues that the local government is trying to solve, the city is still providing temporary winter shelters to meet immediate needs.
“We can’t do it alone and we can’t do it solely because of the other responsibilities we have, but it’s important to me,” said Silvestrini. “I know there are homeless, vulnerable people from Millcreek. … Most of our vulnerable population is from Utah. They are our own families.”
So what is done?
Problems identified with providing more housing as population increases include lack of density, expensive land prices and resistance to mixed-income communities, said Salt Lake County Regional Development’s Dina Blaes.
The funding provided to the state in the American Rescue Plan Act presents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” but the problem is the will of those “outside this space,” Blaes said.
She cited neighborhoods with a “not in my backyard” mentality and several housing proposals that were turned down by city councilors due to community backlash. To meet the demand for affordable housing and the need for density, many mixed-income people will have to accept.
About 500 units will be available this fall and next year at extremely affordable units, Niederhauser said. In addition, the Utah Office of Homelessness plans to ask the Legislature for $15 million in ongoing funding for housing benefits.
“There’s a lot of nuance, but a significant part of it that we’re missing is ongoing funds, which I think could be partially used for a government voucher program,” Niederhauser said.
Current funds were also mentioned by Johnston, who saw them as “crucial” in solving the problem.
“When we talk about trees as city officials, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second best time is now. Housing is a similar thing,” Johnston said. “We survive a lot in these systems on one-off funding when things are good or when there’s a crisis … but we have to build it into our systems.”
The Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to hear more proposals on affordable housing and homelessness in its upcoming sessions, Johnston added.