Mayors from Salt Lake County recently submitted a winter plan to the Utah Office of Homeless Services. It outlines a strategy to help unsheltered people during the harsh winter months. On City Cast Salt Lake, we spoke with Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homeless policy, about the city’s approach to our homelessness crisis.
New laws require other cities and counties, along with Salt Lake City, to think about winter overflow shelters. How will that impact the city's efforts?
“I think we're still committed to doing everything we can to help, because people are here and we have to deal with the reality that people don't have a place to go. What we need from a city perspective is more partners and more resources to help with that. If somebody's experiencing homelessness in another city, in another county, they really shouldn't have to move across the state to get resources. The more that every area in the state can have services available, the more families can stay intact, the more folks can stay in places that they feel comfortable where they've had jobs or housing before.”
We know that shifting people around the city is not a solution, but real solutions — like deeply affordable housing and mental health services — feel far down the road. What relief can the city offer unhoused residents in the short term?
“The first thing we did earlier this year was go after low-hanging fruit for housing. We put out $6 million from the city budget to say, ‘are there programs to get units available quickly that would address this population we're talking about? Do it, apply, let's get the money out the door.’ The state did the same thing with their funding. We knew that some of those were not traditional projects. We have motel conversions, essentially. Sometimes it's gonna be a learning experience, so we don't get the units we need as quickly as we wanted to. So I think we gotta be creative in our housing outreach and do that differently.”
The city and state are trying to figure out what a site could be for a sanctioned camp, and the Salt Lake City Council allocated $500,000 in its budget specifically for sanctioned camping. What could this program look like?
“Looking at places we think have done it well, there are some things we've seen pretty consistently. We've seen they have professional staff running them. They have very clear size regulations. You've got services on site, like case management, healthcare, food, whatever it is that's needed to help people move through that to another [housing] location. When it works well, it works a lot more like a homeless resource center, but just not with the bricks and mortar walls of it.
In our case, working with the state makes a lot of sense because $500,000 doesn't go very far, and even a million doesn't go very far in these situations. If we can combine, great, if we need to find separate ways to do it, that's fine, too, but we wanna make sure that we're collaborating with them to get something that works together, so it's most effective long-term. Because nobody wants to close it down in three months if you run outta funding.”
Listen for the full interview 👇