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Utah looks to Florida for mental health and chronic homelessness solutions

Salt Lake City Homelessness presser, Nov. 30, 2022
Sean Higgins
From left to right: Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, State Homeless Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Erin Litvack address the media at the Salt Lake Chamber offices in Salt Lake City, Nov. 30, 2022.

State and local law enforcement and political leaders are exploring better ways to handle the issues of chronic homelessness and mental health in Utah.

The group, including Utah State Homelessness Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, and other law enforcement officials and homelessness advocates, gave a public update on their findings on Nov. 30 at the offices of the Salt Lake Chamber.

Their research took them to Miami-Dade County in Florida. For some on the trip, it’s clear Utah needs a new approach.

“Unfortunately, we have looked to the criminal justice system to be our crisis managers,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “And what we have learned is that we will never be able to arrest our way out of this situation. What we've learned is that this criminal justice response is the wrong response in terms of systemic long-term gains that we want to make.”

The Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project was spearheaded by county Judge Steve Leifman in 2000. The project seeks to reform how people with mental health issues are treated in the criminal justice system by using community-based treatment and support services as opposed to criminal prosecution.

Utah State Homeless Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said law enforcement will be looking to take on a different role.

“To think that law enforcement won't be part of the solution in the future, no, they're going to continue to be,” he said. “But how we respond and how law enforcement responds and where people go? That’s going to change and the system will work better.”

Homeless advocates say the biggest challenge to implementing a similar program here in Utah is funding.

“We can’t do this piecemeal — here’s a big chunk of money this year, here’s no money this year,” said Jean Hill, a former board member of Shelter the Homeless who represented the organization on the Miami trip. She now works for the Salt Lake County Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives. “It’s gotta be a sustainable funding choice.”

Hill added that another hurdle is where to put people who are in treatment. Salt Lake City has a moratorium in place until next year on new permanent homeless shelters in the city. She said community outreach will also be an essential part of any future success.

“Every time we try and do something in homeless services that requires a building, we see what happens,” she said. “Everyone kind of comes out of the woodwork saying ‘no, no, no, not in my neighborhood.’ We really need the public to understand that over the long term, this kind of systemic change is going to have incredibly positive impacts, not just for those who are being served, but also for neighborhoods.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the group considering homelessness and mental health services will reconvene later in December. Mendenhall’s office has also committed to an analysis of the city’s current homeless and mental health programs.

“This is a seismic shift in the systems that we really have never seen before,” she said. “So it will take some time.

Mendenhall said the analysis is expected to be complete in the first quarter of 2023.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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