“That’s a negative. That’s not my style of leadership,” he told me when I asked if he wanted to be called that.
“My approach is going to be a very inclusive approach,” he said.
And yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate him as a leader. Niederhauser’s inclusive style was effective enough to earn him six years as president of the Utah State Senate, from 2013 until his retirement from elected office in 2019.
It’s that background, the authority he recently wielded and the contacts he has, as well as his previous involvement in Utah’s efforts to help the homeless, that made him the governor’s ideal choice for the job. In announcing Niederhauser’s selection, Gov. Spencer Cox said, “His leadership and ability to bring parties together will be crucial as we develop a coordinated approach to improving life for some of the most vulnerable among us.”
And yet it promises to be an uneasy spotlight.
At long last, the state has a point person for homelessness. That’s the good news. The bad news for Niederhauser is that, while his appointment provides someone to credit when things go right, it also provides someone to blame when they don’t.
The state is at a crossroads when it comes to homeless services. It has invested tens of millions of dollars in cracking down on crime around the old shelter and replacing it with three others. But there is evidence the effort isn’t working, and that the homeless aren’t being served as state leaders originally intended.
The sponsor of the bill that created Niederhauser’s position, Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, made a point in public hearings of saying he doesn’t want the new director of homeless services called a czar.
“That’s not a position of state government,” he said. Yet he described the post as a “point person” who brings “leadership oversight” and “collaboration” to efforts to help the homeless in Utah. He also spoke about the need to return confidence in the state’s homeless efforts to the private sector, particularly philanthropic donors who are confused right now as to where to donate.
Niederhauser as “point person” will report directly to the governor, and he will be the person accountable for the success or failure of efforts to humanely handle the state’s homeless people, to get them back on track and guide them toward self-sustaining lives.
“I do feel I have the authority to do the job,” he said. “But you can easily abuse that power.”
Niederhauser describes himself as a careful leader, someone who measures twice and cuts once. For now, he wants to take time to listen and determine where improvements are needed. “This office initially will be a coordination of more of a statewide effort,” he said. “At some point we’ve got to look at working and not working, and make some changes.
“We’ve needed a different management structure, and that’s what this office of homelessness now will do, to bring a central leadership and focus and bring political subdivisions together.”
Under the new format, Niederhauser will preside over a Utah Homeless Council that is more streamlined than the previous committee, but it still contains a lot of moving parts.
The council will consist of the mayors of Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Midvale, South Salt Lake, Ogden and St. George. It will include the executive directors of five state departments, the state superintendent of public instruction, a faith-based leader appointed by the governor, one member appointed by the state House and one by the Senate, five local representatives, including at least two representing private providers of homeless services and one person, appointed by the governor, who has experienced homelessness.
This group will act as the main decision-making body for homeless services in the state.
Speaking of the many entities involved in helping the homeless, Niederhauser said he will “not necessarily be trying to get into people’s turf.” However, he may eventually recommend changes in law or other reforms, although he has no specifics yet.
As the state has learned in recent years, this is a complicated task. Some people resist shelters and prefer a life on the street. Many have complicating factors, such as addictions and mental illnesses.
Success will be measured in different ways. For average people, it may be measured by how many makeshift tent settlements crop up around the Salt Lake Valley. On Monday, a shooting at one such encampment in Salt Lake City resulted in the death of a man who apparently was living in a tent.
Dr. Robert Marbut, who most recently served as President Donald Trump’s national homeless czar, recently told me these tent encampments are “an indication the overall system is not working.”
“Unless you’ve got your system correct, you’re always going to have encampments pop up,” he said.
In search of progress
No discussion about Niederhauser and homelessness would be complete without a trip back a few years when, by all accounts, including my own eyewitness reports, things were out of control around Salt Lake City’s main homeless shelter on Rio Grande Street downtown.
In 2015, the state Division of Community and Housing issued a statement effectively declaring chronic homelessness had been solved in Utah. It may have been among the most inaccurate and misunderstood statements issued about homelessness in the state.
The statement touted a “Housing First” initiative, through which qualifying homeless people were given an apartment before other needed services. These were chronically homeless people, defined as those who had been on the streets for more than a year, or four different times over the most recent three years. The state provided these people with homes, as well as counseling and other services.
The state claimed this had reduced the chronically homeless dramatically. But some in the media ignored the “chronic” part of this and made it look as if Utah had solved its homeless problem entirely.
“The Daily Show,” for example, sent a reporter on a supposed goose chase to wander the streets of Salt Lake City looking for a homeless person. With a camera following him, he circled Temple Square and parts of City Creek before giving up.
Ironically, if he had gone a few blocks to the west, he would have run headlong into a seething cauldron of homeless people, and the criminals trying to prey on them, that covered nine square blocks surrounding the Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street.
I toured this area in 2016, talking to exasperated and frightened business owners and workers. They reported regularly having to arouse people sleeping near business entrances, watching drug deals in broad daylight and sex acts in the open. Every morning they had to clean what was left by people using doorways and sidewalks as bathrooms, as well as used needles.
By the summer of 2017, the lawlessness turned deadly. One person died when a woman drove her car into a group of pedestrians. Another died in a series of assaults near a freeway overpass. The fear was that truly needy people were being pushed to the side.
That’s when the state launched “Operation Rio Grande.” It was led by the House Speaker at the time, Greg Hughes, but Niederhauser and Gov. Spencer Cox, who then was lieutenant governor, also were heavily involved.
For the first time, homeless issues were being tackled by an operation involving multiple law enforcement agencies and leaders from several jurisdictions — an acknowledgement that homelessness was more than just a Salt Lake City issue.
The first phase involved an intense crackdown on crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood, shutting down the street to vehicles. Eventually, three new shelters were built in separate parts of Salt Lake County. The Road Home was shuttered.
It was a great show of force, but the overall problem of homelessness in a growing state was, and remains, far from solved. In 2020, state lawmakers passed a bill commissioning the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah to prepare an assessment of the state’s homeless services efforts and to make recommendations.
The results were unsettling. The report, issued last November, said results were falling far short of expectations. The average length of stay at shelters was increasing.
“The number of Utah’s children experiencing housing instability and at risk for homelessness is also concerning,” it said, adding that “leadership roles, including the chain of command, are not clear.” The system lacks a statewide funding plan and a comprehensive budget, and it has no communication structure or decision-making framework
The homeless governance structure was described as a confusing group of voting and non-voting organizations — “an amalgamation of well-meaning, but less than optimized entitles and community leaders that experience capacity and alignment issues, as well as unnecessary conflicts or potential for conflicts.”
One of the answers, it said, was to appoint a homeless services officer — a point person with “leadership experience and acumen” — a person “with empathy who cares deeply about people and community.”
Niederhauser is in a unique position. He was a leader in Operation Rio Grande, and he was a member of the Gardner Institute’s Governance Advisory Group that helped to draft the report. He also is a member of the Pioneer Park Coalition, which is involved in seeking solutions for homelessness. And, of course, he led the state Senate for six years.
He admits the energy surrounding that operation has “lost some steam.”
“As long as the energy was put toward Rio Grande, it was a success,” Niederhauser said. But then Niederhauser and Hughes left office, as did Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, an important part of the effort who left to spend one term in Congress. It was natural that the effort would lose some of its focus and drive.
“But I believe the energy is ramping up again,” he said.
There is no shortage of ideas about how to move forward. Some people support a fourth shelter, to avoid the state having to lease space each winter to house overflow needs. Some, including Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall, want to explore the construction of communities of tiny homes.
Don’t expect sudden decisions from the man who won’t be called a czar. He understands the hazards of his new job.
“I’ve been that before, to some degree. Being Senate president you become kind of a focal point,” he said. “I’m used to taking the arrows, and I suspect I’ll take arrows in the future.
“But my approach is going to be a very inclusive approach. I will be bringing people together.”
But at least one thing now is sure. Whether the state’s efforts to reduce homelessness succeeds or fails in the future, at least people will know who to look at first.