SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates and people experiencing homelessness called on Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's administration Friday for a plan to better meet winter shelter needs.
In a news conference outside her office, about 30 people — including former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson — demanded that Biskupski's office do more as emergency shelters serve record numbers of people.
"They are bursting at the seams, and it's going to get the point where people can't get in," Anderson said. "I can tell you, every single person involved, except apparently the mayor, is insistent that we get a plan in place and we get facilities where people can go in and get out of the brutal cold."
Biskupski said funding is in place for solutions beyond the opening of a winter overflow facility at Catholic Community Services of Utah's St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, which happened in mid-November.
Earlier this winter, the Salt Lake City Council allocated some $280,000 for winter shelter overflow services.
"There's at least $100,000 still sitting here waiting for some financial requests," said Biskupski, explaining that while the overflow shelter may work for some, others refuse to come into congregate shelters because they are highly uncomfortable in a large settings.
"In the past and what could and should be happening is that financial requests should be coming in to draw down funds to secure hotel rooms and motel rooms," she said. "That has been very successful in getting those individual who have fear of these larger spaces to come inside on these very cold nights. We haven't seen any of those requests yet."
Once the city receive such requests, "we will turn those around very quickly to enable this additional support that's needed," Biskupski said.
Anderson called that approach "shortsighted."
"We're talking about putting in place a program that will be for the duration. Whenever it's too cold, whenever the shelters are at capacity that people can find a place to survive and get out of the cold," he said.
Anderson said Salt Lake could replicate Philadelphia's "Code Blue" program, which allows public buildings to be be opened for shelter once temperatures reach a certain point.
"They have cots. They have resources, and they have a plan in place. We have no plan in Salt Lake City for when the shelters are at capacity and people are out in the cold," Anderson said.
An online petition calls on the mayor's office to deliver temporary winter shelter locations to the City Council.
The petition, which had 875 signatures by 9 p.m. Friday, asks people to "please add your name to this petition to ensure that the most vulnerable among us do not suffer from death and loss of limbs this winter season."
Biskupski said the city has made resources available to service providers for sheltering options. The city stands ready to spend the money it has allocated, and the mayor said she believes the City Council will earmark more funding if it becomes necessary.
The issue is challenging because some people experiencing homelessness simply refuse to come in from the cold, she said.
"It hurts my heart to watch it. It hurts the hearts of many. But there is a reality to that. You simply cannot force people to do something they do not want to do," Biskupski said. "But we have the funding, we're ready to spend it. We're waiting for requests to come in from the shelter, from service providers."
Brigitte Romo Leroux, who is staying at the Road Home's downtown shelter, said more options are needed, particularly for working men who cannot reach the shelter when beds are allocated.
One of her friends was unable to get a bed, Leroux said, so she brought him hot chocolate to ward off the cold.
"I saw how he was freezing. I was freezing, and I thought about how he had been there for hours and I had only been there for five minutes," she said.
Leroux said she spent Thursday "crying and praying all night, not just for him but all my guy friends and girl friends, especially those that stay out in the cold because they can't get a bed," she said.
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, said space is tight, but the shelter has been able to accommodate the crush. Part of the challenge is being able to address needs of specific populations, particularly families, but single men have been entering the overflow shelter at St. Vincent de Paul as late as 2 a.m.
Shelter capacity can depend on who shows up. A common room that could accommodate 30 single women might only be able to house three or four families.
Motel leasing is one tool that can add additional capacity but needs to be used in the most efficient manner, Minkevitch said.
"I think it is also prudent to have in place additional measures that will enable our community to address the needs when the demand beyond motel leasing is reached," he said.
Minkevitch said there clearly needs to be an adequate supply of emergency shelter beds, but in the long term, deeply affordable housing is key.
"As a community, we can work toward helping people get out of shelter and into permanent housing as rapidly as possible," he said.
Anderson said individuals have a role in helping the people in need among them.
"I just put some people up in a hotel room last night. They had nowhere to go in this brutal cold. I encourage everyone in Salt Lake City to go down and walk among these, the least of my brothers," he said.
The New Testament calls on people to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter those who have no homes, he said.
"We can rise to that in this community," Anderson said. "Right now we're not."