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Emotional debate in the Utah Senate over homelessness, affordable housing

Posted at 3:24 PM, Mar 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 19:46:40-05

SALT LAKE CITY — An emotional debate took place in the Utah State Senate on Thursday on homelessness and affordable housing.

"I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a silver bullet on this issue. What i do know is that regardless of political affiliation, regardless of ideology, regardless of where we come from, the best solutions for the homeless is caring and stepping up and doing your part," said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, his voice choking.

House Bill 440 is a compromise involving a number of stakeholders about homeless services. Under it, shelters can exceed capacity in certain situations. Counties have until Sept. 1 to come up with winter shelter plans, including temporary shelters. If they don't, the state can intervene and put up a temporary shelter in a city. If they do that? That city is only picked once every four years.

In the Senate debate, lawmakers acknowledged that Salt Lake City has shouldered a disproportionate amount about homeless issues while other cities have refused to deal with it entirely.

"My constituents are exhausted. They have said enough. They are a compassionate group of people helping others. No one can question Salt Lake City’s helping others. Enough is enough. We’ve asked for a break," said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

Some senators still had concerns that Salt Lake City would still be disproportionately impacted.

"Legislation like this forces Salt Lake City to absorb everything," said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. "We need everybody to step up. All cities in the state of Utah."

Salt Lake City will get some state money to help with homeless services. Wayne Niederhauser, the former Senate president and now the state's homeless services coordinator, said $5 million will help.

"How do we mitigate the impacts of a resource center/shelter in our community? The impact is broad, but we need some money to do that. So having $5 million... that’s going to go a long way. It’s going to benefit Salt Lake City who got nothing before, Ogden and St. George," he said.

House Bill 462 expands affordable housing. It has been the subject of complaints by advocates for housing affordability, who don't feel the legislature has funded it enough. Advocates sought $128 million — and got $55 million.

They argue that to keep people out of homelessness, more needs to be done to address affordable housing.

"We’re very grateful for that money. It will make a dent. Not as big of a dent as $128 million, but we understand there are other things to fund like education and other needs the state has," Niederhauser said.