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Road Home shelter to close when homeless resource centers open

SALT LAKE CITY — Less than 24 hours before announcing where four new homeless shelters will stand, Salt Lake City officials confirmed that The Road Home downtown will be shutting its doors.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, told the Deseret News on Monday that the board of directors of Shelter the Homeless Inc. — a private nonprofit led by Zions Bancorp. — recently voted to close The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street after the four new homeless resource centers are completed.

"As soon as all four facilities are up and operating, the board will transfer control of the current Rio Grande facility to Salt Lake City's (Redevelopment Agency)," Rojas said. "That building will be vacant and will no longer be a shelter space."

It's news that the Pioneer Park Coalition — an organization that has pushed for change in Salt Lake's most troubled neighborhood — was thrilled to hear.

"A lot of the residents and businesses in that area are just fed up with what's been going on, and they have felt that the process has dragged on," said Dave Kelly, coalition spokesman. "For a lot of them, it will be a relief to know (their neighborhood) will be able to transform and heal."

City Councilman Derek Kitchen, who represents the downtown area, said the shelter's closure will be a "huge relief" to Rio Grande.

"This neighborhood has been struggling for a long time," he said. "They've been carrying the responsibility of caring for those experiencing homelessness for well over three decades now. It's time for relief, and it can't come soon enough."

But when former Mayor Rocky Anderson first heard the news Monday, he worried there could be "huge concerns" if the phasing out of The Road Home isn't handled properly.

The four future homeless resource centers are expected to house 150 people each, for a total of 600 beds. Currently, the downtown shelter has a capacity of about 1,100.

"It's going to be way under necessary capacity," Anderson said, though he was cautiously hopeful that homeless services in the city and Salt Lake County will see a dramatic, holistic overhaul by the time The Road Home phases out.

That, Rojas said, is exactly what city officials are "confident" will happen.

"We're not replacing one (shelter) with four," he said. "We're replacing one with an entirely new approach."

Rojas said new city and county homeless services programs — including affordable housing initiatives, rapid rehousing and Pay for Success programs — will be able to "absorb" and divert those who don't occupy bed space in the four new resource centers.

"It's a whole new approach to how we treat the homeless issue in our city," Rojas said.

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, did not return phone calls Monday evening but said via email "it is certainly a possibility that The Road Home could have an interest in operating new facilities."

It's not clear what role The Road Home organization will have in the planned resource centers.

"The prospect of having new facilities from which to provide services is a very good thing," Minkevitch said. "Locally, our communities across the Wasatch Front will need to make sure that they are meeting the sheltering needs for people who are currently turning to The Road Home for help."

It's not yet known exactly when the four homeless resource centers will be completed, with construction slated for 2017. Rojas said some are expected to be done in 2018, but it could take longer for all four to come online.

Kitchen said he's confident the city and county will have robust programs in place by the time the downtown shelter closes.

"It's a challenge for sure, but the hope is we can really rely on the two years of research and data we've captured," he said. "The Road Home is getting at capacity, so we can't just keep extending those limits every year. When we're talking about a systematic issue of homelessness, it's more than just the homeless shelter we need to address. It's the way we treat people."

The future of the downtown shelter space is unknown, Rojas said, but Salt Lake City will "definitely" see positive impact in the Pioneer Park and Rio Grande areas.

"Of course we want to see a change in (Rio Grande), but it's not just for that neighborhood; it's for the whole city," Rojas said, adding that the "scattered site model" is supposed to create a safer homeless service climate.

Until a news conference scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, the public won't know where the homeless resource centers will be built — a decision city officials decided to make behind closed doors to avoid pitting neighborhood against neighborhood.

But Kitchen said regardless of where the new shelters land, Salt Lake residents aren't going to see what's been happening on Rio Grande Street.

"Trust the process that has included not only the city, but the county and all the service providers," he said.

Anderson said time will tell whether the city's plans will work.

"There's reason for real hope, but I think we all have to see how it all comes together," the former mayor said. "People always like to paint rosy scenarios, but things don't always fall into place like they hope they will. You can shoot for that goal, maybe you can get there, but we need to be very careful before we start cutting back on capacity."

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez