Homelessness in Utah, like in many other states, is a highly politicized policy area. In fiscally conservative states, resource scarcity and extensive need have led to contention among community members, advocates, service providers, and different levels of government. Utah’s economic boom and rapidly growing population have pushed more and more Utahans into homelessness. Local and regional approaches to managing local homelessness have ranged from largely absent to forceful removal and relocation. Utah is also a very philanthropic state with a vast number of nonprofit organizations and many community members volunteering their time to help those worse off, including the homeless.
Under increasing pressure to learn from the past and build new strategies for addressing homelessness, Utah passed a law requiring the State Homeless Coordinating Committee to develop a statewide strategic plan on homelessness that address ways of measuring performance and actions steps for improving coordination. The State Homeless Coordinating Committee then contracted myself and my colleague Jesus Valero at the University of Utah to draft the plan. Drawing on collaborative governance theory, ‘health in all policies’ and a social equity lens we made very conscious efforts to lead a drafting process that maximized early stakeholder participation and access to the policy-making process. We also very consciously solicited input from as many voices and as many parts of the state as possible, many of whom had been marginalized or side-stepped in the politics of Utah homelessness policy. What this meant, in reality, was that we needed to pull together and conduct 15 focus groups across Utah, with the help of 7 graduate students in public policy and administration, in the middle of Utah’s hottest summer months. We barreled across the high desert, five people to a car, training and debriefing as we drove, scouring data and reading other state plans in hotel rooms late at night, and stopping wherever we could for more coffee and chocolate. We did this because we care, and we believe that better policy is informed by local knowledge and that we train the next generation of interdisciplinary participatory researchers through mentoring and modeling. The students did it for the thrill of being engaged in something that matters.
We happen to be researchers who have both been funded by the RWJF, with a passion for homeless issues and interdisciplinary community engaged research, who got a rare chance to contribute directly to the development of strategic policy for the state we live in. The feedback we received from the stakeholders in the focus groups was overwhelmingly positive. While some were skeptical of the state level commitment to actual policy change, those working in the trenches of social strife far away from the state capital were exceedingly grateful that someone, anyone really, from the state level came to them to ask what their conditions are and how rural communities look at homelessness. The urban focus of homeless policy over the past decade has created rifts among service providers and local governments. A more equitable consideration of resources, needs, and lived experiences was welcomed and appreciated by both urban and rural stakeholders. The process of community engaged research has led, in a very tangible way, to more democratic decision-making, some re-establishment of trust in state efforts and increased local commitment to a statewide approach to homelessness.
In this fast-paced policy research our RWJF fellows served as an initial brain trust to quickly orient us on homeless policy in other states, past and current challenges and best practices. My training as an Interdisciplinary Research Leader and Jesus’ RWJF research on homeless services networks in Texas and Utah helped us pull this plan together in three months, and it is currently out for public comment <https://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/520103.pdf>. Thank you IRL and thank you RWJF for caring enough to teach us, so we can be the change we want to see.
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.