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Road Home breaks ground on housing complex

The state's busiest homeless shelter is about to become its biggest provider of permanent housing for Utah's indigent and low-income residents.

Construction of The Road Home's Palmer Court began Tuesday with a ceremonial groundbreaking at the old Holiday Inn motel on 1000 South and Main in Salt Lake City.

The 200-unit motel, which was purchased by The Road Home through an alliance of mostly private backers, will be reconditioned into a permanent housing/support services complex. When it opens in about a year, it will be the focal point of the state's joint effort to end homelessness in Utah by 2014.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told an audience of state and local officials, business leaders and homeless advocates that the state "clearly has the shared commitment and partnership in the community" to make the goal a reality.

Roman, in town to address a state summit on homelessness today, said Utah has both "the evidence and the will" to be a national model for how to approach what is the top chronic social problem in every city nationwide.

The purchase of the motel was made possible by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, Crusade for the Homeless, Salt Lake County, Morgan Stanley, American Express, UBS Bank and Merrick Bank.

Estimates by The Road Home and other advocacy groups put Utah's nightly homeless population at around 4,000.

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, said the new complex not only represents a new era for the shelter, which began in 1923 and was formerly know as the Travelers Aid Society, but represents a transition away from the stopgap approach of emergency housing to giving people stability as they transition back into the community.

The concept is to provide people not just a place to stay for the night en masse, but to give them their own room, complete with small kitchen and bathroom. In addition, medical and social services will be provided. The units will have on-site property managers and a security system.

"The idea is not just to give people assistance for a few weeks, but a home base they can call their own and a place to feel at home and get a new start," Minkevitch said.

Volunteers of America President and CEO Jeff St. Romain, whose agency provides front-line recovery services to the indigents who have substance-abuse problems, said people in rehab and living at a similar but smaller apartment house at 600 South and 500 West have dramatically fewer relapses.

"They have far fewer nights in detox when they do, they have fewer visits to the emergency rooms and much fewer incidents with police," he said. "We are seeing, and studies are proving, that if you take (away) that extreme stress of just surviving night to night, the urge to reuse drops dramatically. People have more dignity and they want to stick with the progress they're making."

Alex Adams, a current resident of the Sunrise Metro Apartments, said he is a real-life illustration.

"I've even started to volunteer myself," Adams said, noting that living in the streets can make putting one foot in front of the other seem like an overwhelming task.

"People often cast a dark light on the homeless," he said. "And it's so easy for the homeless to lose hope. But in my experience, people are homeless for many more reasons than people think. And most importantly, given the chance, most everyone will prove themselves. They still want to be someone and want to contribute, they just forgot how for a minute."