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Downtown Salt Lake shelter still on track to close; overflow 'worst case scenario' and unlikely, state officials say

FILE - John Hargreaves cleans the single men's dorm at the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.
FILE - John Hargreaves cleans the single men's dorm at the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — No, there shouldn't be a need for an additional shelter, and yes, the downtown Road Home shelter is still on track to safely close in 2019.

Those were assurances state officials shared Wednesday, the day after Salt Lake City leaders expressed new doubts about whether the new homeless resource centers' 700 beds will be enough to keep people off the streets when the up-to 1,100-bed downtown shelter closes in 2019.

"When we look at (the numbers), we feel ahead of the curve rather than behind the curve," Jonathan Hardy, director of Housing and Community Development in the state's Department of Workforce Services, said in an interview Wednesday.

But even if for some reason programs for housing, motel vouchers or other "reduction strategies" don't pan out, there is about $2 million in one-time funding set aside for an "overflow" shelter, Hardy said, adding that would be for a "worst-case scenario" he's confident won't happen.

"That would be our last option," he said. "The more we get into this, I think the less we'll need it."

Concerns about how two 200-bed shelters in Salt Lake City and a third 300-bed shelter in South Salt Lake would be enough once the downtown shelter closes on June 30, 2019, surfaced again Tuesday when city leaders publicly worried there hasn't been talk of a backup plan.

Road Home Executive Director Matthew Minkevitch said Wednesday in a statement it is "thoughtful of the City Council and others to reflect upon this issue," noting that there are "many nights where the number of people staying in our downtown facility has been greater than 900 people."

"It would be prudent and humane to have contingencies in place when the demand for emergency shelter exceeds the supply of space that will be available in 2019 and beyond," Minkevitch said.

Hardy said Wednesday those contingency plans have been made — though he's confident it won't come to needing an overflow shelter.

Hardy explained the math using a Department of Workforce Services budget and capacity analysis shared with the Deseret News Wednesday. While the analysis was initially drafted in March 2017, Hardy said 2018 numbers on are track with the projections, if not better.

"I feel pretty good we're on track or ahead from where we were," Hardy said.

Here's how it will work, as the Department of Workforce services sees it:

Though the downtown shelter has previously had the capacity to serve up to 1,100 beds, it's capacity was reduced last summer when families were pulled out of the shelter to only be served in either the Road Home's 300-bed Midvale facility or with motel vouchers paid for by the Department of Workforce Services.

Since then, the downtown shelter's monthly daily average check-ins have dipped. In February, average check-ins were 748; in January, 715, according to data the Road Home gave to DWS.

The state also has nearly $1.8 million set aside to pay for up to 170 motel beds for families if the Midvale shelter is full, and an additional 185 beds are expected to be offset with "reduction strategies," Hardy said.

That includes about 92 beds expected to be offset with supportive housing, and about 75 beds to be offset by a 10 percent reduction in time people spend in the shelter once the new system's coordinated entry model is implemented, and 18 beds offset by "diversion" strategies in the new system, Hardy said.

Also included in the departments estimates are about 66 beds for seasonal overflow contingency, which Hardy said could include per-diem payments to other shelters, including Lantern House in Ogden if they have open bed space.

In total, strategies to offset about 420 beds are expected and budgeted for, according to the analysis. Combined with 700 beds in the new resource centers, Hardy said there shouldn't be a need for a new overflow facility.

But critics of the plan, including the Urban Crossroads Center, have said an overflow shelter for families is needed since the Midvale shelter has been functioning at capacity.

Bill Tibbits, associate director of Urban Crossroads Center, also worries the motel voucher program adds instability in children's lives, since the families may be shuffled from room to room when cheaper options open up.

"The motel program is not sustainable," he said. "I don't think anyone wants to see that grow."

Hardy acknowledged the motel program is "not ideal, but shelter is not ideal either." He said if need be, rather than use the $2 million in contingency for an overflow facility, the state could use it for other programs, preferably housing options.

Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said Wednesday she was "encouraged" that after reports of the council's concerns circulated, she began receiving information from other homeless stakeholders. She also said she was "comforted" to hear $2 million is already budgeted for overflow contingency.

"That indicates that there are contingencies in place and money is a good beginning to a conversation around deploying a strategy," she said.

Mendenhall noted that the council looks to Salt Lake County's Collective Impact Committee for information on the progress, but "we were not given data in their presentation yesterday."

"I wasn't the only council member that clearly needed more information to feel updated on the progress toward the June 2019 closure," she said. "But we will get there."