Adobe stock photo
A bill that creates a statewide Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative won final approval Tuesday in the Utah House of Representatives. Lawmakers will appropriate $9.25 million of state and federal funds for housing, shelter and services.

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation that backers say presents a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to reform statewide efforts to house, shelter and serve people experiencing homelessness passed both houses of the Utah Legislature Wednesday.

HB436, sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, will appropriate $9.25 million in state and federal funds for the Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative, the first installment of a proposed $27 million, three-year funding plan.

In Senate debate, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the bill represents the collaborative efforts of some 30 different partners that spent most of 2015 studying homeless services and the location of homeless service providers in the Salt Lake area.

The groups' braided recommendations included overwhelming support for a scattered-sites approach to facilities that serve people experiencing homelessness and separate facilities and programming for subpopulations.

The bill calls for specific funding for case management and requires two levels of accountability for projects funded under the initiative.

"I do believe, if this plan is successful, it will save the state and our communities taxpayer dollars," said Weiler, Senate co-sponsor of the bill.

But in the Senate, where the amended bill passed on a vote of 26-2, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, asked whether the bill was "based on the assumption that housing is a right the government is obligated to provide? Is that why we're providing taxpayer money for that?"

Weiler said the bill "is based on the fact when people are homeless they are going to be using our emergency rooms services, welfare services, committing crimes and costing the state a tremendous amount of money. This is designed to actually save money in the long run by getting people into housing and the help that they need."

Under HB436, the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County would become members of the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee and the state would create a "Homeless to Housing Reform Restricted Account."

Funds in the account will be awarded as grants to help meet sheltering, housing or other needs of people experiencing homelessness. The coordinating committee will prioritize projects or contracts that have "significant additional or matching funds from a private organization or local government entity," the bill states.

"We have been dealing with the population continuously for many years across the state and a large homeless population in Salt Lake County," Weiler said.

"Through those years, we have data and we have learned through sad experience that it's more expensive not to address the problem and hope it goes away than to actually address the problem."

The House voted 63-0 to concur with the Senate amendments. The bill now goes to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com