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No ‘headwinds’ expected for homelessness bill establishing prioritized shelter access

Outside the Senate chamber on the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
Outside the Senate chamber on the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.

Tackling homelessness has been at the forefront of some Utah lawmakers' minds, especially as those experiencing homelessness continue to rise. From 2022 to 2023, the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness as measured by the annual point-in-time count increased by nearly 4%.

A bill with a multi-prong approach, HB421, prioritizes who should have access to shelter beds, deals with how the state hospital should discharge patients who are homeless and allocates funds to cities enforcing certain laws.

In an early February committee hearing in the House, Republican sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, said if those experiencing homelessness “aren't placed in the proper setting in the community, they're likely to be back either in the state hospital or back into our prison and jail system.”

Priority shelter access

A key aspect of the bill is establishing a priority list for who gets access to open beds at overnight shelters. The Utah Homelessness Council, which would consist of 11 members under a different bill, would be instructed to make the list. Under Eliason’s bill, Utahns leaving the state hospital would get preference.

Usually, if a hospital worker knows a patient is unsheltered, they will call local overnight shelters to see if there is availability. Those conversations can get lost in translation, Eliason said, and the patient ends up suffering from it. He told the story of one Utah State Hospital patient.

“An individual [was] discharged [from the state hospital] and they called up one of the facilities and they said, ‘Yeah, we have a bed.’ When they got there, there was no bed. They hit capacity,” he said. “They can't take the person back to the state hospital because that's a judicial process. They just left her on the curb. They had no other option. We don't want that to happen here.”

Family shelters in Utah would also have to prioritize people who are eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. But that criteria is concerning to homelessness advocates like Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah. She told the House committee on Feb. 9 that the federal program “does not apply to people who are here as refugees,” because they don’t have the necessary identification. There could be unintended consequences if shelters were to turn away refugees with children.

“We are going to put refugees out on the street because we are out of resources in the family shelters,” she said. “These are families that can and will contribute to our society. If we put them out on the street, they will fall into a cycle of homelessness that will be very hard to pull them out of.”

The bill does allow the state homelessness council to identify other prioritizing traits, Eliason said, including “maybe a woman who's pregnant or has a young infant.” But it will ultimately be up to the council to decide who will receive preference of shelter beds beyond those leaving a state hospital and those eligible for the federal program.

Hospital discharge protocol

A second tenet is centered around how Utah State Hospital employees handle releasing patients who have no home to return to. During a Feb. 26 Senate committee hearing, Eliason said that “too many individuals being discharged in the state hospital are being discharged into homelessness.”

The bill would allow the state hospital to contract with other services to aid patients with mental health struggles either within the hospital or outside it where funds allow. Per the legislation, the state hospital would not get an increase in state funding to begin those negotiations with outside providers. The ultimate goal would be for patients with serious mental health struggles to continue getting care for their conditions. As a result, Eliason said the hope is the state hospital “should be able to increase the number of patients that they're serving” because there would be known places an unsheltered patient could go.

Cities’ role

Another piece of the bill specifies which cities can receive funding from the state’s Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Restricted Account. Cities with overnight shelters are required to report back to the council how they’re enforcing no camping or panhandling laws. If cities are not following the law, Eilason said those places could lose the funding altogether.

“We want to make sure that the funding we're using is going to keep our streets and community safe and also protect homeless individuals from abuse in such settings,” he said.

Republican Rep. Brady Brammer said homelessness “hits close to home” because his brother “died while homeless in Salt Lake City of a drug overdose.” While he voted for the bill in the House and in committee, Brammer emphasized that he’s “underwhelmed” with how the state has handled the issue.

“I see open hearts that want to help. But I see a failure in accountability on multiple levels,” Brammer said. He has significant concerns with “the lack of enforcement at different times within the shelters, the efforts to evade police within the shelters, the lack of prosecution related to possession crimes in and around the shelters [and] the property damage around Salt Lake City particularly.”

The bill passed the House unanimously and awaits debate in the Senate. During media availability with reporters on Feb. 26, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers said he feels “pretty comfortable” with where the bill is and doesn’t see any “headwinds” moving forward.

Updated: February 27, 2024 at 10:11 AM MST
This story has been updated to clarify the 4% increase in homelessness was measured through the annual point-in-time count, which measures the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness on a single night.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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