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Foundational progress made in Utah homeless services but urgent crisis persists, report finds


SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has made “significant and meaningful progress” in homeless services but still faces an “urgent and growing” crisis in chronic homelessness, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The review and resulting report were requested by the Utah Impact Partnership, which consists of members of the philanthropic community. The coalition was officially formed in 2021 after a previous report by the Gardner Institute recommended that philanthropic funders unite.

Following the creation of the Utah Impact Partnership, the group committed to raising $15 million to match with $15 million from the state of Utah for strategic impacts on the homeless in concert with strategic governance reforms. The public-private partnership became further solidified in the recent legislative session, with a bill reducing the Utah Homeless Council board from 29 members to nine members, including a seat allocated to the Utah Impact Partnership.

The report noted the need for collaborative approaches to the issue: “After extensive interviews with community leaders and data evaluation, the conclusion was that we must reframe our focus from activities to outcomes and create structural incentives to inspire and support improvement along the continuum of care. Utah is on the right path, but a crisis remains. Success requires urgent, collaborative, and bold action.”

The foundational success and groundwork for future success stems from the major alignment of philanthropic and state and local government leaders, the report notes. But homelessness is a growing and persisting crisis. While rates of homelessness in Utah remain lower than the national average, chronic homelessness increased 96% from 2019 to 2023 and 27% in 2023 alone. The numbers reflect “the need for sustained efforts from both the public and private sectors.”

The emerging focus on alignment between government leaders, the philanthropic community and service providers was represented in a panel organized by the Gardner Institute. Panelists included State Homeless Director Wayne Niederhauser, service provider Carol Hollowell and state Sen. Kirk Cullimore.

“I think what’s first important to recognize is that, historically — not just in Utah, but across the country — homelessness has not been a state-level problem. It’s been addressed at the city or county level, with county health departments and local law enforcement and service providers within the cities or counties,” said Cullimore. “But this is a state problem, and we need to address this holistically from a bunch of policy perspectives. And I think we’ve made huge strides even more than in the past decade.”

Wayne Niederhauser, Utah Homeless Services director, and Carol Hollowell, executive director of homeless services provider Switchpoint, speak during a Gardner Institute Newsmaker Breakfast on homelessness in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Wayne Niederhauser, Utah Homeless Services director, and Carol Hollowell, executive director of homeless services provider Switchpoint, speak during a Gardner Institute Newsmaker Breakfast on homelessness in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

That sentiment was reinforced by Niederhauser, who added, “For our success in homeless services, there’s three things we need to have: coordination, coordination, coordination.”

With coordination and collaboration come a lot of different voices or perspectives, prompting the need for further alignment to challenge misconceptions.

“There’s a narrative out there that I hear often, that we’re just attracting people from other states because we have services and housing. And some of that is probably happening … we’re talking about a handful of people,” said Niederhauser. “People become homeless in every community in this state and in every county, but there’s only a few of our cities and counties actually doing something about it.”

An additional misconception is that people choose to be homeless or do not want shelter, added Niederhauser. Hollowell runs several shelters including the state’s microshelter community and winter overflow. Current shelter capacities, with the extended overflow of 400 beds, have consistently been near capacity, proving not only the need but the desire for beds.

“Sometimes there’s a narrative out there that these people just don’t want to be in housing or shelter,” said Niederhauser. “People do want to get in off the street. We’ve proven it, and we just need to have those resources, those methods on a year-round basis, not just for winter. The idea of releasing 800 people on April 30, when winter plans are over — 800 people that have been in shelter, now back out on the street — that’s just not a thing we can accept.”

Utah has an ongoing need for affordable housing beyond what can be solved by adding shelter beds to the system.

“We’ve seen here in Salt Lake County that our greatest increase in homelessness has been our senior population. They’re getting priced out, and they have nowhere to go. They’re not going to get a second job. They’re not going to move up the chain. They’re going to be there on a fixed income, and they’re going to stay there. How do we do a better job of eliminating that part of the homeless population?” added Hollowell.

And if each panelist had a magic wand? They said results would include 10,000 beds by December, deeply supportive housing with wraparound services, and immediate support and case managing for those ready to exit homelessness.

“For 10 years we’ve been making progress on this issue. And I think context is so important because we get stuck in the now or an election or a pandemic, and we lose that our community has actually been working on this systems reform, which takes years of work for over a decade,” said Michael Parker, executive director of Utah Impact Partnership.



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