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Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News
FILE - Homeless people in Salt Lake City wait outside Catholic Community Services at 200 S. 500 West next to the Road Home, called "the block" on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's spending on homelessness has grown by nearly $20 million over the past two years, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

Utah spent roughly $81.2 million on direct and indirect costs for federal, state, county and city homeless services and programs in 2016, the legislative auditor general's report states.

That's up from $71.5 million in 2015 and $63.6 million in 2014, according to the report.

And that doesn't factor in the estimated $67 million the state expects to spend on Operation Rio Grande over the next two years.

Auditors attribute much of the growth to "associated costs," funding programs that would exist "regardless of homeless populations," such as policing or behavioral health programs.

For example, almost all of Salt Lake County’s $8.9 million in spending to address homelessness in 2016 went toward behavioral health and criminal justice costs, and Salt Lake City spent nearly 85 percent of its $11.2 million in associated costs on policing.

"Associated costs have grown much faster than direct costs from fiscal years 2014 to 2016," the report states, noting that associated spending was $40.8 million in 2016 — up 48 percent from the $27.6 million spent in fiscal year 2014.

"The increase in associated costs has likely been spurred, in part, by the rise in the number of homeless individuals receiving Medicaid, along with increased police costs incurred in areas of the city with large numbers of transient populations," the report states.

Overall, however, state and federal funds "appear to be distributed appropriately," auditors concluded.

House Speaker Greg Hughes said after the audit was presented to the Legislature's Subcommittee on Oversight on Tuesday that the state and city have worked well together.

"We have been partners. We've been outside our lanes a little bit as of late," he said, referring to Operation Rio Grande, but in terms of "how we harmonize our efforts, I have nothing but good things to say about this experience."

The speaker did raise concerns about how the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — the state's reform to reduce some drug offenses — might be impacted, making it clear the effort was fully funded by the Legislature.

"Is there more we could do? Absolutely," Hughes said, but added he didn't want the public to have the impression that all that was accomplished is that felonies were turned into misdemeanors.

"My fear is if that narrative continues, there are many that may say this is a failed effort," the speaker said. "I don't want that to be the story of (the Justice Reinvestment Initiative)."

City costs

Salt Lake City is "significantly affected by the transient homeless population," the report said, with most of its costs "dominated" by with police services, especially for the troubled Rio Grande neighborhood near the 1,100-bed Road Home shelter downtown.

"Nearly all funding distributed by Salt Lake City for homelessness is directly tied to Rio Grande area service providers, police and fire dispatches, and cleanup in this area and others with similar concentrations of homeless individuals," the report states.

Overall, Salt Lake City spent $13.6 million on homelessness issues, including $12.5 million in city funds, $823,000 in federal money, and $184,012 from the state. That's up from $10.3 million in 2015 and $8 million in 2014, according to the report.

Of the $13.6 million, Salt Lake City reported spending $9.7 million on police, including calls for services in the Rio Grande area, investigations and "special assignment" costs of $4.4 million, again including projects specific to Rio Grande.

Mary Archbold, Federal, state, local funding for Utah homeless services
Federal, state, local funding for Utah homeless services

"Although total police expenditures for homelessness account for 16 percent of the city’s police budget, the city reports that no additional personnel or shifts were used to address homeless populations," the report states. "Increased efforts in the Rio Grande area have come at the expense of heavier workloads for police officers and the quality of service and community policing efforts."

The next largest area of Salt Lake City spending, $1.6 million, went toward fire department costs, and the city also distributed about $1.4 million to service providers for the homeless, including the Road Home.

The Road Home is slated to shutter in July 2019 when three new homeless resource centers open.

"Once this is done, it is hoped that the dispersal of the homeless individuals to multiple new shelters throughout Salt Lake County will reduce the concentration of homeless individuals and crime in the Rio Grande area, which could result in a decrease in Salt Lake City homeless expenditures in the area," according to the report.

But that may not happen, the report warned, because many associated costs "may be unavoidable, even as homelessness is reduced," because the police and fire departments will still need to maintain a presence downtown.

"Although the hope is for a reduction in homelessness in the Rio Grande area, Salt Lake City's public safety personnel (those dealing with homelessness) will be relocated to the new homeless resource center locations," David Litvack, Mayor Jackie Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, wrote in response to the audit.

County costs

Salt Lake County oversees the distribution of the largest portion of the $81.2 million on programs for Utah's homeless in 2016 — more than $30 million, according to the report.

Most of the county's expenditures, however, are from state and federal contributions, with $14.7 million in federal funds and $3.6 million in state dollars that the county passes through to service providers, the report stated.

Overall, the county's expenditures were "dominated" by three major areas, making up 87 percent of the county's distributions: housing and community development, behavioral health services, and jail costs.

About $9.6 million was spent on behavioral health services, $10.3 million on housing and community development, $6.5 million for the jail and $2.1 million for the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association.

However, the report indicated that "county spending has not been clear" and cost accounting of services specific to homelessness in the county has not been "consistently represented across departments."

Therefore, auditors recommended "increased transparency in the presentation of county expenditures and distributions to help all stakeholders better understand homeless funding."

"Given the increased attention that has been given to homeless spending in recent years, it would be beneficial to the county and other stakeholders if a reliable, consistent method of allocating and reporting costs was developed.

In a written response to the audit report, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' deputy mayor Darrin Casper, over finance and administration, noted "Salt Lake County agrees that federal, state, county and city funds for homeless services are muddled."

That's why Casper said the county launched is Collective Impact on Homelessness steering committee "because of the belief that funds currently committed to homeless services could be better leveraged to minimize homelessness and provide better coordination."

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Casper also said the county "believes the crisis in homelessness is caused in large part due to failure to provide sufficient treatment options for substance abuse, mental health, and criminal justice."

"We agree that simply providing more options for shelter will not reduce the need for treatment. … However, if the promised funding for behavioral health treatment becomes available, this will ease demands on our criminal justice and homeless services system," Casper wrote.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche