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With state money to help the homeless, there's scrutiny on street camping

Posted at 3:07 PM, Jun 12, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — The state is wading into efforts to help the homeless at new levels, but also demanding accountability and results in exchange for millions of dollars.

The Utah State Legislature's approval of funding for housing and homelessness was a topic at a discussion Wednesday at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Much was made about Governor Spencer Cox's decision to involve the state more in homeless issues, instead of just putting it on cities and counties.

"Homelessness has not been a state-level problem," said Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy.

While grateful for state investments, Carol Hollowell, who runs the homeless services provider Switchpoint, said housing remains a critical need.

"When you’re meeting thousands of clients a year and they’re saying 'I have money. I have Social Security, I have disability, I have a veteran’s pension. I just can afford to live anymore anywhere,'" Hollowell said. "That is a huge problem we’re facing in our state."

Figures released on Wednesday show Utah's unsheltered population is increasing. Census takers documented 3,687 people living on the streets in 2023 (an increase from 3,557 in 2022). Utah has the third-highest growth rate in the United States for people experiencing homelessness. Chronic homelessness has jumped 27% from 2022 to 2023.

Sen. Cullimore, who has sponsored some of the homelessness bills, spoke about the need for housing. (He also acknowledged his own work as an eviction lawyer but defended some of the laws surrounding that.) The senator, who is a member of GOP leadership on Utah's Capitol Hill, said funding is a critical part but there are many competing demands for money like education and other social services.

"I'm sure there’s always going to be a need for more funding like there are for many, many services across the state. What’s going to be key is not just looking to the state but coordinating efforts between counties and the cities and the state," he told FOX 13 News.

But where the state is giving, they're also demanding results. In a speech last week, Gov. Cox defended his decision to involve the state more instead of leaving homelessness up to cities to solve. But the governor also warned homeless services providers he wants accountability for how money is spent and the results they get.

The governor has been vocal about his push to end unsanctioned camping on the streets. Wayne Niederhauser, the state's homelessness coordinator, echoed that in his remarks on Wednesday.

Hollowell told FOX 13 News she believes the state also ought to lean into "sanctioned camping," like the tiny home village they created in Salt Lake City as an experiment. Switchpoint ran it and Hollowell said it has been successful.

"I was a little iffy in the beginning but I think it turned out to be a great pilot that showed we could keep it clean, and safe, and hold people accountable," she said. "Yet they were in a gated area, they could feel safe and their valuables were safe. I think it’s time to look a large sanctioned camp in this state."

As FOX 13 News first reported last week, Niederhauser has been looking at properties in the Salt Lake Valley for a massive 800-bed shelter. If built, it would be the single largest facility of its kind in the state. Niederhauser said the need is there. The legislature appropriated $25 million this year for a new shelter.

"I think to run a facility that has 800 to 1,000 beds? That’s probably going to cost $10-12 million a year to operate," he said Wednesday.