Utah seeks mental health and chronic homelessness solutions in Florida

State and local law enforcement agencies and political leaders are searching for better ways to address Utah’s chronic homelessness and mental health challenges.

The group, which included 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, announced Nov. 30 in the offices for a public update on their Salt Lake chamber findings.

Her research led her to Miami-Dade County, Florida. For some on the journey, it’s clear that Utah needs a fresh approach.

“Unfortunately, we have looked to the criminal justice system as our crisis managers,” the Salt Lake County District Attorney said Sim Gil. “And what we have learned is that we can never stay 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 achieve.”

The Miami Dade Criminal mental health project was led by District Judge Steve Leifman in 2000. The project aims to reform the treatment of people with mental health problems in the criminal justice system, using community-based treatment and support services instead of law enforcement.

Utah State Homeless Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said law enforcement will try to play a different role.

“To think that law enforcement won’t be part of the solution going forward, no, they will continue to be,” he said. “But how are we responding and how are law enforcement responding and where are people going? That will change and the system will work better.”

Advocates for the homeless say the biggest challenge in implementing a similar program here in Utah is funding.

“We can’t do this piece by piece – here’s a big chunk of money this year, here’s no money this year,” said Jean Hill, a former board member of accommodate the homeless who represented the organization on the trip to Miami. She now works for the Salt Lake County Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives. “It has to be a sustainable funding decision.”

Hill added that another hurdle is housing people who are in treatment. Salt Lake City has one moratorium to new permanent homeless shelters in the city by next year. She said that public relations will also be an essential part of any future success.

“Every time we try to do something in homeless service that requires a building, we see what happens,” she said. “Everyone kind of gets out of the woods and says, ‘No, no, no, not in my neighborhood.’ We really need the public to understand that this type of systemic change will have incredibly positive long-term impacts, not just for those being cared for, but for the neighborhood as well.”

Mayor of Salt Lake City Erin Mendenhall said the group, which is considering homelessness and mental health services, will meet again later in December. Mendenhall’s office is also dedicated to analyzing the city’s current homelessness and mental health programs.

“This is a seismic shift in the systems that we’ve really never seen before,” she said. “So this will take a while.

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

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