Utah Gov. Cox to homeless providers: Produce results, or you could lose funding

By: Katie McKellar, Utah News Dispatch

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox did not pull punches on Thursday when he gave a keynote speech to a room full of homelessness advocates, providers and policymakers.

His message: Utah’s homeless system is in for some changes — changes to make sure homeless service providers are producing results toward the state’s goal of reducing homelessness. And if they don’t? They could lose public funding.

“We need accountability,” the governor said. “Not just for those that we’re providing services, but for those of us that are providing the services.”

After negotiations between the governor’s administration and lawmakers stretched into the final days of the 2024 session, the Utah Legislature ultimately funded more than $50 million in new money to help boost the number of emergency shelter beds.

As part of that effort, lawmakers also passed a sweeping bill, HB298, to restructure the state’s homeless system’s governing body, and tasked that body to create a statewide plan to reduce homelessness and establish new accountability measures for homeless providers. Those measures are not yet set, but is something the newly revamped Utah Homeless Services Board (which met for the first time last month) will be working on in coming months.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox delivers a keynote speech at a conference hosted by the advocacy group Solutions Utah (formerly known as Pioneer Park Coalition) at The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City on June 6, 2024. (Katie McKellar / Utah News Dispatch)

During their first and at times tense meeting, when the body approved nearly $31 million in grants to homeless providers, the board’s new members signaled they would be focused on increasing oversight to ensure safety and root out drug use in shelters.

Cox said the 2024 Utah Legislature’s more than $50 million in funding came with a commitment.

“My commitment to the Legislature is you get to hold me accountable, and in turn I’m going to hold all of you accountable. Everyone in this space,” he said. “If it’s not working, then we’re going to stop doing it. And we’re going to do something that does work, because we know that there are things that work.”

Just like how elected officials need to be held accountable, Cox said, “our service providers need to be held accountable.”

“We need to be able to answer the taxpayers of the state of Utah and let them know if what we’re doing is actually working,” he said. “Because if it’s not actually working, then we should stop doing it.”

Some really great people are going to lose their funding. OK? You have to know that this is going to happen. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox

The governor acknowledged that will likely mean some “really hard” decisions.

“Because some really great people are going to lose their funding. OK?” he said. “You have to know that this is going to happen.”

Cox then issued a warning to homelessness providers.

“Either make sure what you’re doing is working, or figure out something else to do really quickly, and then we’ll support you,” he said. “We’re going to have to hold each other accountable, because we can’t keep throwing money at something and not be able to deliver any results.”

Conference hosted by Solutions Utah, rebranded from the Pioneer Park Coalition

Cox was the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by the homelessness advocacy group Solutions Utah. The group was formerly known as the Pioneer Park Coalition (originally founded as a coalition of business owners to advocate for revitalization around the downtown area that has a long history of grappling with homelessness issues) before it was rebranded in March to align with a mission of improving Utah’s statewide homeless system.

Solutions Utah’s “priority goals” for 2024, its website states, include legislation to enhance accountability and oversight to the homeless industry — something HB298 seeks to accomplish — “universal enforcement of no-camping and illegal drug use,” “rewarding homeless treatment models that work,” and “mitigation of homeless-related crime to benefit businesses and nearby homeowners,” among others.

The crowd at times fell into a tense silence while listening to Cox’s speech, but he was warmly received when he acknowledged the tension.

“I know that’s heavy. I know I came in a little hot, and I apologize for that,” Cox said with a smile, prompting some laughs. “But we can’t just talk about the nice things anymore. We have to talk about the hard things.”

While highlighting an ongoing coordinated effort with the Utah Highway Patrol and Salt Lake City Police Department to clean up homeless encampments and drug use along the Jordan River, Cox committed state leaders are “all in on this. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I was told by many on my team that this was a huge mistake, that I shouldn’t take this on, because a lot of it is outside my control and it’s a problem … that’s growing everywhere,” he said, adding he was told, “‘It’s traditionally been, let the city and county deal with it, just put the pressure on them. Don’t get involved, it won’t end well for you.’

“And they’re probably right,” said Cox, who is running for reelection this year. “And I don’t care. Because it’s too important.”

Cox’s remarks prompted applause.

“These are our people, OK?” he said. “These are our friends. These are our neighbors. These are our kids. They’re our parents. Now, sadly, more of them are our grandparents. These are real people with real stories, and they deserve our help, and they also deserve our respect.”

By “holding them accountable,” Cox continued, “it shows that we do believe in them, that we do care about them, that there is something better for them.”

“They don’t get to just camp wherever they want. They don’t get to make our streets and our parks miserable for the rest of us. That’s not what a society that loves each other does. We don’t let them do that, because it’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us,” he said. “We the people are going to love and care for we the people, and we the people are going to hold each other accountable.”

Cox’s speech got a standing round of applause.

The conference took place at Salt Lake City-based The Other Side Academy, a nonprofit that has a two-year residential program where “criminals, homeless and substance abusers can change their lives,” its website states. The Other Side focuses on teaching its residents self-reliance and accountability. Its website says the academy is not funded with government money, but uses revenues from its training schools to support its residential program.

During Thursday’s conference, Solutions Utah awarded the sponsor of HB298, Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, with a community leadership award, applauding his work to pass legislation to improve “accountability” in Utah’s homeless system.

The conference also included two panel discussions moderated by former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who in 2017 helped spearhead Operation Rio Grande, an over $67 million, multi-agency effort to root out crime and drug use in the Salt Lake City neighborhood while helping connect people experiencing homelessness to services. While moderating, Hughes repeatedly harkened back to themes from Operation Rio Grande — including focusing on rooting out “wolves,” or criminals that can use mass encampments to prey on vulnerable people experiencing homelessness and peddle illegal drugs.

Operation Rio Grande drew praise from its supporters for swiftly tamping down on lawlessness in the area, but criticism from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah for a “law enforcement-first approach” that can bring negative consequences for unsheltered people.

People experiencing homelessness hang out in the median on 400 West in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

In his speech, Cox pointed to a book titled “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth,” by Sam Quinones, who argues the U.S. made a “huge mistake,” Cox said, when it “swung the pendulum too far on the compassion side” when it comes to dealing with drug use and its impact on homelessness.

“I want to be very clear, compassion is a good thing and absolutely necessary in this work. You cannot do this work without compassion,” Cox said, but he said the U.S. has swung “too far” in not doing enough to discourage and prevent drug overdoses and addiction.

Cox said policymakers need to focus more on accountability — while also not forgetting compassion. He said Quinones uses the saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, but you can make that horse very thirsty.”

“It’s not a false choice,” he said. “We can do both of those things. We can have compassion, and we should. We can do more to provide space, provide lodging and to provide help, recovery services, to provide everything that person needs. But if they choose not to do those things, then we have to hold them accountable and make them thirsty.”

A warning against jumping to ‘defund’

During one of the panel discussions, which was focused on “data supported solutions to homelessness,” Eva Witesman, director of the Ballard Center for Social Impact at Brigham Young University, said she had some “concerns or fears” when it comes to dangling dollars over the heads of homeless service providers and asking them to use data to justify their eligibility for funding.

“Data is a powerful way to learn and to manage, and we also sometimes use it to make funding determinations and policy determinations,” she said. “One of my concerns and warnings is on behalf of providers. Data should be used to help providers learn — and not to punish them.”

Witesman urged policymakers to be thoughtful before defunding a program. “Even if we discover that some program that has been running is not effective, there should be space for those organizations to learn, change, grow and improve their metrics rather than simply defund,” she said.

By jumping to defund, Witesman said that can lead to a drain of institutional knowledge.

“When we defund people, we lose the experts who have actually been working in this space,” she said. “Failure is a part of learning and a part of the work that we’re doing here.”

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