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Salt Lake City’s New Homelessness Policy Director Calls For More Money For Affordable Housing

A photo of a homeless encampment.
Whittney Evans
Salt Lake City’s plan to address homelessness includes cleaning up camps, connecting people with resources and eventually shutting the encampments down completely. A national advocacy organization has asked Mayor Erin Mendenhall to leave the camps open unless there’s adequate housing available.

Former Salt Lake City Councilmember Andrew Johnston has been in his new role as the city’s director of homelessness policy for about a month.

He has a big goal: making sure everyone has safe and reliable housing.

To make progress on that, Johnston said the city and state need — unsurprisingly — more affordable housing.

“We've got needs all up and down the income spectrum,” he said. “But our biggest, as far as number of units needed and lack of investment, has been at that very low median income. And that’s really the folks who are in the homeless system right now.”

He said the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness estimates there’s a need for around 3,000 units for people experiencing homelessness.

One of the problems, he said, is funding. He serves on Utah’s Commission on Housing Affordability said there’s private and federal money for housing that’s in play this year that could “launch” efforts to combat homelessness in a “positive direction.”

As for immediate needs in Salt Lake City, the winter overflow shelters will be closing in June — and there’s a hot summer ahead. Johnston said those facilities house more than 200 people.

“The first thing that we're working on is finding placements for everyone possible out of those current motels,” he said. “Can we get them into the resource centers, into housing options, if they've got a voucher or some income? Let's find that first placement before they choose to go back to camping.”

Community organizers have butted heads with the city over the past year because of efforts to clean up and tear down homeless encampments.

Johnston said there will still be a push for camp abatements, citing safety and health reasons. But he said he’s been talking with community members about how to move forward.

“I'm not sure anybody loves camp mitigations. I'm not sure anyone agrees that's a long-term strategy,” he said. “So if we can get everybody on the same page and working towards permanent housing in different capacities, I think we're going to get there quicker than we would otherwise.”

Over the next 12 months, Johnston said he wants to reduce on-street camping by finding more indoor resources.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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