Homeless in Utah: Challenges and Opportunities

February 24, 2016 | Public Policy

By: Juliette Tennert, M.A.

Among the many issues that Utah’s legislature is tackling in the 2016 General Session, addressing homelessness in our state is among the most pressing.  Legislators are considering a number of bills and funding requests that represent the coordinated efforts of stakeholders through the HOMES Initiative seeking a common goal of minimizing homelessness in Utah.  While we can celebrate success in reducing chronic homelessness (at last count, Utah’s chronically homeless population is 91% smaller than it was in 2005), the risk of homelessness among families with children and young adults is an increasing concern as the poverty rate in Utah has grown since 2010. The number of Utah homeless school children has grown more than 50% since 2007, and at least 40% of homeless Utahns are part of a family with children (Department of Workforce Services, 2015).

Over the past several months, at the request of Salt Lake County, analysts at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute have spent time reviewing our community’s homelessness services system.  Our work affirmed three major challenges:

  1. Complex, interrelated and intergenerational – Homelessness includes a complex set of interrelated, and often, intergenerational challenges that require the integration of housing and supportive services to promote stability.
  1. Primary emergency shelter stretched beyond capacity – The primary emergency shelter, The Road Home, serves individuals and families for longer periods than was originally intended. In addition, it operates as the primary access point for homelessness support services within Salt Lake County. A person or family at risk of homelessness cannot receive these services.
  1. Inadequate supply of affordable apartments – A substantial gap exists between the need and the supply of affordable apartments for individuals and families with extremely low income.

Based on our review, we have identified four potential strategic options that could be considered as resources are prioritized to improve homelessness services:

Strategic Option #1 – Develop Housing and Support Services at Multiple Sites / Campuses

The primary emergency shelter is at over-capacity and inappropriately utilized. By developing new, purpose-built facilities—each of which targets specific household types and need profiles—the community will be able to more effectively provide support services.

Strategic Option #2 – Provide Incentives for Extremely Low-Income Units

There are clear gaps or mismatches within the range of affordable housing units in Salt Lake County. The most pressing challenge is the very limited supply of units that are affordable for extremely low-income households, which may be attributed, in part, to insufficient incentives for developers and owners to provide these units.

Strategic Option #3 – Allocate Resources to Housing Assistance Programs

Improved efficiency for the shelter system may be achieved by allocating more funds and resources to housing assistance programs. This could reduce capacity pressures on shelters while awaiting completion of capital projects. Salt Lake County could adopt the use of assessment tools to identify individuals and families most likely to succeed without support services provided within the homelessness services system (i.e. those that may be able to have their needs met by mainstream service providers). In this approach, however, Salt Lake County could find that significant ongoing commitments from public, private, and philanthropic partners are necessary to support housing stability in the absence of other capacity-focused alternatives.

Strategic Option #4 – Employ a Blended Model with Incremental Adjustments

A multi-pronged approach that allocates some funding for purpose-built shelter facilities and some funding to ongoing rental subsidies (e.g. prevention/diversion measures and/or Rapid Re-housing approaches) may be both feasible and desirable. Longer-term, if it is possible to resolve the mismatch between the supply and demand of affordable units, the need for rental subsidies for market rate units may be alleviated and funding shifted towards operations and maintenance subsidies to assist greater numbers of individuals and families.

Our full analysis, including relevant definitions, conditions of homelessness, types of assistance, and additional information that illustrates the complexity and interrelated nature of the homelessness issue are available in our Policy Brief:  Salt Lake County Homelessness Services: Challenges, and Options.  When addressing the current problem of systematic imbalance in the homeless system, it is important to recognize that the optimal strategies today may evolve over time to address a changing economic situation and/or housing market dynamics. Therefore, planning bodies must be prepared for solutions to evolve over time and immediate-term solutions should not preclude a change of direction in the future.

Juliette Tennert is the director of economic and public policy research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.