Meanwhile, Rates of Homelessness Continue to Soar Across the State
Utah’s red-hot housing market is driving more people into homelessness, according to a recent state audit. But state lawmakers seem content to increase funding for police responses rather than help build more affordable housing.
The Beehive State has been one of the country’s hottest housing markets since the pandemic began. The state’s median home price grew 62% between March 2020 and its peak in April 2022. Meanwhile, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City has increased by more than 105% over the same time, according to data from Redfin.
At the same time, rates of homelessness have soared.
The state Department of Workforce Services 2022 report on homelessness shows that the state’s homeless population grew by 14% up to more than 7,700 in 2021, marking the first increase in the last five years. The report also showed that service providers are falling short of meeting their goals, like keeping shelter stays to 61 days or less or limiting the number of people who return to homelessness after being placed in temporary housing.
The report points to “challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a rapidly rising cost of living” as two reasons why rates of homelessness are increasing in the state.
But instead of increasing funding for more supportive housing, state officials are spending millions on increasing police responses to homelessness, according to a recent investigation by The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, and several local news outlets.
In 2022, the investigation found that the Utah Legislature added $10 million in funding for its Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Fund, which contributes grants to local municipalities to provide shelter and other services for people experiencing homelessness.
However, instead of spending the funds on more shelter and services, eight Utah cities used the money to increase staffing for police task forces assigned to respond to homelessness. For example, Ogden spent $1.78 million to hire four full-time police officers, three medics and continue staffing two homeless service advocates.
Salt Lake City used its funding to hire 12 full-time firefighters and EMTs, as well as 12 full-time police officers.
“I think we spend far too much on police resources,” Wendy Garvin, the executive director for Unsheltered Utah, a nonprofit that works with people sleeping outside, told local news station KUER 90.1. “For example, Millcreek has a police officer that’s actually in the shelter the first two hours every night. They’re doing bag checks.” Garvin added that the bag checks are one reason why some of Utah’s unsheltered homeless resist going into shelters.
Local officials like Andrew Johnston, who leads the homeless policy and outreach efforts in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, have defended the spending. Johnson told KUER the funding is about “balancing” priorities like public safety with the needs of the city’s homeless.
“We have a lot of those services, and we always need more,” Johnson said. “What we didn’t have, though, was enough physical folks in the locations around the resource centers.”
Anna Whitnack-Davidson, the homeless services advocate for the City of Ogden, told KUER that having a police presence on her team has helped make “tremendous progress” toward bridging the gap between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement.
“To have an officer come to me and say, ‘I found a person living in their car, and this person really needs help. What can we do?’— those actual conversations that are taking place are really lovely. I think that’s huge,” she said.
Utah Needs More Housing, Transportation Options
Advocates worry that the spending is indicative of a shift away from providing services toward the “move on” system that James Behunin, senior audit supervisor with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, told lawmakers to adopt in November 2021, according to a report by Desert News.
“Because few residents move on to more independent forms of housing, few new spaces are made available in the existing facilities,” the auditors wrote in their report. “Unless this trend can be reversed through a ‘moving on’ strategy, the growing population of chronically homeless will impose an ever-growing burden on Utah’s homeless system.”
To people like Debbie Mayo, the executive director of New Horizons, a nonprofit that works with Utah’s rural homeless population, the answer is simple: increase housing and transportation options so that Utah’s homeless can safely access the services they need.
Garvin added that the state needs to focus on providing solutions for all of Utah’s homeless, not just the ones with less complex cases.
“We have so many people who have been really traumatized by institutions — whether it be a medical institution or a jail or prison,” Garvin said. “It can be very hard for people to go into a big hospital and know they have to go through an ER process when what they are having is a mental health emergency.”
How You Can Help
The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that aid programs work when agencies and service organizations are provided with sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending aid dollars.
Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.