Stakeholders: Can homeless reform plan reduce shelter demand? (Deseret News)

By Marjorie Cortez

SALT LAKE CITY — The plan to reform the homeless services system in Salt Lake County has an unprecedented safety valve intended to reduce demand at emergency shelters.

The plan, as proposed by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' administration, would target two specific populations that regularly occupy a significant number of shelter beds — people with significant criminal histories who turn to the sheltering system after serving jail or prison time, and people who are persistently homeless and as a consequence of their homelessness, commit minor criminal offenses that leave them bouncing between homeless shelters and jails.

The goal of two "pay for success" initiatives is to house these individuals elsewhere in the community in rental units and use intensive case management to help each stabilize and meet specific, measurable goals and subject the programs to intensive evaluation.

Pay for Success initiatives are backed by private investors. Government funds reimburse the funders "if and when" the initiatives achieve their goals.

But are these strategies and others in McAdams' Homeless Services System Reform Plan sufficient to reduce overall demand on the emergency sheltering system? Is there enough affordable housing in Salt Lake County to make these initiatives work?

They were two of the issues raised by members of the county's Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee Wednesday.

The plan calls for eventually phasing out the need for the Road Home's community shelter on Rio Grande Street and construction of two smaller shelters capped at 250 people in scattered sites, in addition to the nonprofit organization's new family shelter in Midvale, which can shelter 300 people.

Josh Romney, a developer and a Pioneer Park Coalition leader, questioned whether the plan and new facilities will be able to keep up with growth in the homeless population and people who are homeless but for myriad reasons aren't using the shelter now.

"Are these facilities going to become what we have on Rio Grande? I think that would be the concern of the neighbors. I think that would be my concern as well. What's our plan for growth? How do we deal with that?" Romney asked.

McAdams said the plan, which is largely a product of Salt Lake County's collective impact process, will not result in "mini-versions of what we have right now. We are building something different that integrates into the community where public safety is not a challenge and the population is small enough that it can be integrated into the community," he said.

Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, said he understands concerns about "if you build it, they will come."

"The more dangerous corollary, however, is if we deconstruct it, the need will go away. We need to be incredibly mindful of that because that will increase our street homelessness," Minkevitch said.

Shaleane Gee, director of special projects and partnerships for Salt Lake County, who has led the collective impact process, said new initiatives that are part of the comprehensive plan have unprecedented accountability measures, which includes measurable outcomes, rigorous evaluations and high expectations of private investors and the Utah Legislature, which appropriated $9.25 million for system reform during its last session.

While the plan envisions moving away from a system where emergency shelters are the primary source of service delivery for people experiencing homelessness, moving people out of shelters and preventing homelessness relies heavily upon the availability of affordable housing.

Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America-Utah, noted that vacancy rates for rental units is about 2 percent, and it is difficult to find spots for people who have approved housing vouchers.

"One of our case managers has 85 people on a waiting list ready to go into the next available unit. That's one case manager and we have multiple. We have hundreds of homeless individuals who have all their paperwork ready to go into a unit and there's no unit," Bray said.

"So if we don't build any more affordable housing fast enough, we're just going to spin in a circle and it's going to look like the service providers have just maybe haven't made any shifts, and I'm not willing to let that be a conclusion. … We need thousands of units to help prevent and help people exit homelessness."

McAdams said affordable housing is a component of the overall strategy.

"I think you're right. We need to put some meat on those bones," the mayor said.

The gap is believed to be about 43,000 units statewide, he said. "We don't have really good data to track in real time what's happening with that. My gut tells me we're losing ground," McAdams said.

Recognizing stakeholders have lingering questions about the proposal, McAdams asked the group to reconvene next week at which time he is expected to ask the collective impact group to endorse major components of the plan.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com