Steve Griffin
People camp in the park strip outside the Leonardo Museum on 400 south in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — What will the homeless do a year from now when it gets like this?

By “this,” I mean nighttime temperatures in the single digits or the teens, as my smartphone tells me will be the case at least part of this week.

Steadily rising global temperatures not withstanding, winters in northern Utah continue to feature spells of dangerously cold weather — the kind you’re not supposed to let dogs and cats out to experience before you go to bed, let alone humans.

So, a year from now we should get an idea of how well the great plan for the homeless along the Wasatch Front is working. We’ll know whether replacing the shelter on Rio Grande Street with three shelters that serve separate demographics, but with fewer combined beds than what currently is available, will work on a night when even the most hardened, shelter-averse homeless need to protect themselves from frostbite, or worse.

And if it’s not working, what then?

Let me preface this by saying I admire the effort that got us to this point. Other metro areas try to sweep the homeless away or harass them into the shadows. The combined effort here, led by the state, is an important recognition that Salt Lake City has, for too long, borne the burdens, financial and otherwise, of a problem that belongs to everyone in the state.

It also has been a recognition that homelessness often comes with a variety of ancillary burdens, whether it's mental health problems, substance abuse, or both, that complicate matters and sometimes lead to crimes. Also, the homeless themselves can be magnets for criminals looking for easy targets.

Separating the homeless by sex and familial status, providing them with necessary services and tracking their progress ought to lead to improvements, at least on an individual basis, which is the most important basis.

But what of the overall picture? What if we find that — one, two or more years from now — the plan isn’t working as well as it might be?

What if we find, as I have suggested all along, that a single, large shelter campus, located away from the urban core, would be cheaper and more effective to operate?

If designed right, a single campus could effectively separate men from women, and both from women with children. But it would have the flexibility needed to move walls and adapt to needs, such as a surge in homeless men looking for warmth on a freezing cold night.

A single campus would provide one cafeteria. Even if divided into three separate parts, this would save money over providing food at three separate shelters located far from each other. The same could be said for other services. Duplication costs money.

So does transportation. I’m still not clear on how the newly homeless, conditioned by stories of a downtown shelter and, as so many are these days, oblivious to the news, will find their way to the new shelters. But any transportation system bringing them in would have to divide its human cargo by type and travel to three separate locations.

A recent legislative audit found that, between taxes and donations, about $100 million was spent on homeless services in Utah during 2017. That’s $100 million for somewhere north of 2,000 homeless people. As time goes on, who is going to ask whether the effort is cost-effective, and what will happen if someone suggests a better way?

The danger is that politicians will have so much invested in the current plan, both in terms of public money and political capital, that they won’t be nimble enough to change if necessary.

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Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a one-night count of the homeless in major metro areas. The counters take pains to go where the homeless might be hiding. Even though there are obvious potential flaws in this method, the count can identify trends over time.

Last month, counters found 2,876 homeless people in the Salt Lake area, which was 0.8 percent higher than the year before. They found a 2 percent increase in families with children.

It makes sense that a growing metro area would see a growing homeless problem. So, while it’s great that so many politicians and other community leaders are devising new ways to deal with the problem, the public should be asking whether, just in case, someone has a Plan B.