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What's a homeless resource center?

Youth center provides model for 4 new homeless shelters in Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — The first time Kent Clair was offered a bed at Volunteers of America-Utah's Homeless Youth Resource Center, he called a friend who offered to let him stay at his place instead.

But that didn't happen.

"I ended up staying out all night and I never got hold of my friend. I basically walked around Salt Lake City for a good six hours," Clair said.

But Clair found a $20 bill that allowed him to buy a meal at Denny's at 2 a.m. He stayed there for a few hours and made his way on foot back to the resource center. As he waited for the doors to open for breakfast, he slept nearby on a sleeping bag lent to him by another homeless youth.

This time, he was ready to give the resource center a chance.

In a few short months, Clair's life has stabilized to the point that he has a job and he will soon be in housing. He and his family are working on their strained relationship and he's starting to see a future instead of spending his energy simply surviving.

That's a common experience at the youth resource center, now a 24/7 operation, said Rob Wesemann, VOA's division director of homeless services.

City leaders and advocates say building similar resource centers will help reduce the number of homeless people looking for beds as Salt Lake City develops its newly announced plan to create four new but smaller shelters.

Previously, the youth resource center operated during business hours out of a storefront on State Street. In May, VOA opened a new facility at 888 S. 400 West. "For the lack of a better term, it's a one-stop shop," Wesemann said.

For the first time, the center offers emergency shelter, with a capacity of 30 beds. The center serves three meals a day plus snacks. There are on-site mental health services, as well as resources to complete high school education, start college and find employment. There are showers and laundry facilities.

The new youth resource center also has an on-site legal clinic, a grab-and-go pantry and a "store" where clients can select among free donated clothing items.

"It really is, 'Where can I go that it will minimize my need for travel and get a number of things done at once?' They've been proven to be pretty successful in other parts of the country," he said.

On Tuesday, Salt Lake City officials announced four sites where new homeless resource centers will be established in Salt Lake City. None will be larger than 150 beds each and the plans call for tailored services to better meet needs of specific populations, such as single women, families or single men.

The plan calls for the eventual closure of the Road Home's shelter on Rio Grande Street.

One of the persistent questions in the wake of Tuesday's announcement is whether four resource centers with the capacity of serving just a combined 600 people can adequately serve people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County.

Recently, the Road Home, on a single night, served 1,409 people — a record for the nonprofit agency that shelters, houses and provides case management to men, women and families.

Wesemann said Tuesday's announcement is one part of a planned systemic change over how Salt Lake County addresses homelessness.

Instead of viewing the new centers as a one-for-one trade for numbers served in emergency shelters, resources centers provide targeted services designed to help clients move from homelessness to stability quicker.

"I really do like what the mayor said: 'We want to focus on what happens after someone hits the shelter. We want to focus on housing resources. We want to focus on supportive services for individuals.'

"That's really what the difference is going to be. If we can decrease the time someone needs an emergency shelter and get them back into the community employed again, housed again, that's what's really going to make the difference," Wesemann said.

In addition to developing new homeless resource centers, efforts are underway among the city, Salt Lake County and state to encourage development of affordable housing.

Tuesday's announcement of the new resource centers was met with mixed reaction. Some people have decried the process used to select the four sites. An online petition demands a halt to the city's plans for "further review and approval by the community and residents." As of Wednesday night, the petition had about 264 signatures.

Asked to comment about the petition, Salt Lake City Council Chairman James Rogers said, "Every citizen has the right to address government. We encourage it. … We have taken input all along the way and will continue to do so. This issue brings out strong feelings, and it's our job to hear them."

Wesemann said resource centers are part of the solution, but the community also needs more affordable housing and people need access to substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, health care and other supportive services.

"If you simply focus on the numbers in emergency shelters, we're missing the point. A bit of stability with additional opportunities for individuals and families, that's really what's going to make the difference," he said.