Katie McKellar

(Utah News Dispatch) In just five years, Utah’s homeless system has transformed so much, it’s almost unrecognizable.

Now, even more changes are coming.

One of the biggest? Plans to use some of the state’s newly set aside $25 million for a new 600- to 800-bed emergency homeless shelter located somewhere in the state. Leaders plan to choose a location in coming months.

It will be the biggest homeless facility seen since a larger emergency shelter located in downtown Salt Lake City was shut down in 2019.

So what’s next? And why are state officials now moving ahead with a larger facility, even though years ago the goal was to operate smaller shelters scattered across the state?

To answer that question, it helps to look back in time.

How Utah’s homeless system has changed

In 2019, critics were skeptical of plans to replace that downtown homeless shelter with three smaller homeless resource centers. Some worried the new centers (at the time capped at about 700 beds combined between all three) wouldn’t be enough to accommodate the downtown Road Home’s emergency shelter capacity, which some nights kept over 1,000 people off of the streets.

But adamant about shutting down what they considered was an unruly, difficult to manage facility that was fueling chaos and crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, local and state officials moved ahead with their plan to replace that emergency shelter with a “scattered sites” model. By breaking up the downtown shelter’s population into smaller, more carefully designed facilities, they hoped the new centers would better triage people into services that would fit their needs without having as much of an impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

Yet sure enough, soon after the downtown shelter closed in late 2019 once all three of the new centers were up and running, it didn’t take long for their capacity to essentially max out. Services meant to “divert” people out of those new shelters — be it supportive housing, mental health services or drug treatment — have also been strained. Meanwhile, Utah’s homeless population has continued to grow.

For the next several years, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called on state leaders and other cities to play more of a part and treat homelessness as a “statewide issue.” Slowly but surely, some cities have come along. While Salt Lake City used to be the only city pushing for more emergency shelter and winter overflow beds, the Legislature in recent years passed laws to require major counties to create winter overflow plans. Cities like Millcreek and West Valley City have helped, and now even cities like Sandy are playing a part in the larger system.

In recent years, the state has also taken a more active lead. Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president, has been serving as the State Homeless Coordinator since he was appointed in 2021. Today, he’s the point person in Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration orchestrating and negotiating state legislation and funding to bolster Utah’s homeless system.

As pressures continue to mount on both Utah’s housing market and its homeless population, local and state officials have slowly expanded homeless shelter availability in a variety of forms in and outside of Salt Lake City while also grappling with festering frustrations about on-street camping.

But it hasn’t kept pace with Utah’s growing homeless population. The state’s chronic homelessness has increased 96% since 2016, with a 27% surge in the past year alone, according to a letter the powerful philanthropist group called the Utah Impact Partnership issued to lawmakers during the 2024 session. For that number, the group cited an “exhaustive review” of Utah’s homeless services using data from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

By funding a larger facility this year, state leaders are now addressing in a big way what advocates have been saying for years as the state has been transitioning to this new system: Utah needs more permanent homeless shelter capacity.

But at the same time, legislators this year also angled to take a more holistic approach — by not just focusing on emergency shelter, but also behavioral and mental health issues.

When acknowledging strides over the past several years to revamp and expand Utah’s homeless system, Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit that helps low-income Utahns, credited lawmakers for their efforts.

“When everything is online, we will have a much more robust homeless services system than we’ve had — ever,” Tibbitts said. “More beds. More services. … We will clearly have the most beds for getting people indoors in the winter and in the summer when it’s really hot and people are at risk of having heat stroke.”

While Tibbitts said he would like to see more ongoing money devoted to deeply affordable housing that’s “really needed” to help move more people out of homelessness, Tibbitts said he thinks lawmakers “funded the things that will have the biggest impact.”

Over $50 million for emergency homeless services

This year, the governor made homelessness a centerpiece issue in his recommended budget, seeking $128 million for homelessness, including $12.7 million in ongoing money and $115.3 million in one-time money as part of a three-year plan to bolster the state’s emergency shelter system.

Even though Republican legislative leaders spent much of the 2024 session saying there wouldn’t be enough funding this year for all of the governor’s asks — while never budging on a $167 million income tax cut — in the end Niederhauser was able to secure a total of over $50 million in additional state spending for emergency shelter.


“Obviously we didn’t get as much as we had asked for, but we assumed that would be the case,” he said. “We got what we needed, and we’re really excited about that, to be able to fill some of those gaps.”