SALT LAKE CITY — Significant safety issues exist at the downtown Salt Lake and Midvale homeless shelters operated by the Road Home, "largely due to a lax enforcement of the rules and procedures designed to prevent drug use and to provide a secure environment," according to the findings of a state audit released Tuesday.
"We have serious concerns about the health and safety of the residents at both emergency shelters," the Office of the Legislative Auditor General concluded in its report.
The audit also cited some of the same concerns for residents of the Palmer Court housing complex in Salt Lake City that is operated by the Road Home, which provides inexpensive living accommodations for the chronically homeless and disabled.
The audit, which began in January, recorded "troubling allegations regarding drug use, safety concerns, poor health conditions and mismanagement at the downtown shelter."
Those allegations "were repeated during our interviews with several dozen homeless individuals who have stayed at the shelter," the report said.
Auditors said they were concerned about the ease with which illicit drugs could infiltrate the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City.
"While we recognize that security staff usually remove individuals from the shelter when they are found using drugs or have been banned from the facility, we are still troubled by how easily residents are able to enter the facility with drugs and drug paraphernalia," the report said.
The report cited information from state law enforcement about a man who had recently been arrested inside the shelter and was found to be in possession of a loaded gun, drugs and drug paraphernalia.
"Not only did the individual enter the facility undetected with a gun and drug paraphernalia, but he had already been banned from the shelter for theft and drugs," the report said.
Despite some homeless interviewees' complaints about cleanliness, "the shelters appeared to meet county health standards," the audit report said. But the audit also found health concerns at Palmer Court, thanks to a loophole in the rules about pets there and some residents' "difficulty cleaning up after (their) animals."
Responding to the audit Tuesday, Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, assured "we will revisit our rules." He said that process would happen "in collaboration ... with our service providers."
Minkevitch, speaking at a Tuesday hearing before the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, pushed back against the idea that the staff at the Road Home shelters are turning a blind eye to drug problems at the facilities.
"If there is any suggestion our team tolerates drug dealing, I assure you we are not," Minkevitch said.
The Road Home said in a release Friday that it would be "updating the standards of conduct" at its facilities, as well as the "processes to enforce them." The organization also promised to "further standardize policies that address" public safety and drug abuse at its facilities, among other factors.
'Evidence of drug use'
Auditors reported Tuesday that "during nearly every visit, we found some evidence of drug use" at the downtown shelter.
Other visits also yielded the discovery of a "used syringe under a bunk" and "Spice joints in the urinal."
Auditors also reported they had interviewed 21 homeless people living on the streets of Salt Lake City, and that "nearly a third" reported they avoided the shelter in order to avoid the "drug use, stealing and poor health conditions"there.
Auditors did not personally see drugs or paraphernalia on their visits to the family shelter operated by the Road Home in Midvale, but police reports indicate drugs have been a problem there as well, the audit said.
Auditors said police have reported a candy laced with THC — marijuana's psychoactive ingredient — was also found in a "public area" of the Midvale shelter.
"We are concerned that candy containing THC could be found at a community shelter where children are present," the report said.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said even one incident like the examples cited in the audit should be a sufficient wakeup call to the Road Home to re-examine its practices.
"The day we know weapons are in there, the day we find out there was a candy (laced with THC), is the day we step up our game," Hughes said.
At Palmer Court, "outside social workers, the Road Home staff, and residents have all indicated that they know who uses drugs and that they have observed drug use at the facility," according to the report.
The audit cited "lax enforcement of shelter rules" as a significant factor in the issue of drug use in the downtown shelter.
"Staff are inconsistent in enforcing the rules and procedures designed to prevent drugs from entering the facility," the report said. "For example, upon entering the downtown shelter, residents are supposed to have their bags and coats inspected for drugs, and a magnetic wand should be used to screen each person for weapons.
"In actual practice, we observed the screening often consists of little more than waving the magnetic wand over the coat pockets. Sometimes even that step is not done."
Sanitation, rent concerns
In examining the sanitation of each location operated by the Road Home, auditors found that "while the shelters appeared to meet county health standards, health inspectors found numerous health and safety violations at Palmer Court."
The report also said that "the payment of rent at Palmer Court appears to be optional."
"We found that 69 percent of the residents are behind in their rent payments. In fact, the total unpaid debt obligation by all residents is currently $438,000," the report said. "Some residents are years behind in their rent and owe many thousands of dollars."
The Road Home said in its official response that it has successfully worked with 19 Palmer Court tenants on a personalized rent plan in recent months.
"When we accept a person into Palmer Court, we invest significant resources and commitment to help them end their homelessness," the response stated. "It makes sense to work with them when they encounter crises that result in unpaid rent rather than move to immediate eviction."
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, cautioned legislators not to get ahead of themselves in response to the audit, arguing that it's not altogether unexpected that a homeless shelter would struggle with the presence of drugs.
"Let's not engage in pearl clutching," King said.
King added he could sympathize with Road Home staff, who are not trained in law enforcement, falling short of the letter of the law in screening for weapons.
"It may have to do with safety of staff members, the safety of other people," he said.
King raised the idea of installing "a method of involving law enforcement or armed private security in the screening process." Minkevitch said he was open to exploring the idea, but also cautioned it is possible that a significant portion of those who are homeless could feel intimidated by such a presence and forgo shelter altogether.
In a part of The Road Home's response published with the audit, the non-profit outlines its philosophy of being a "low barrier shelter."
"We attempt to eliminate all barriers that would prevent someone from entering shelter," the organization wrote, calling the principle "one of the key elements of an effective emergency shelter."
Both Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that in light of the findings of the audit, they were not enamored with talk of low-barrier entry.
"I worry we confused low barrier with (telling shelter residents) we're not going to care, we're not going to ... stop you," Hughes said.
Added Niederhauser, "Low barriers is, to me, no accountability."
"You deal with folks that have some mental illness, have some drug addiction, but people generally respond to accountability," Niederhauser said.
Road Home's future
Niederhauser also asked, "Are we looking at different models of folks who would (come) in with a different idea of how things would be run? Maybe a better idea?"
Niederhauser posed the question to Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, which manages the properties of the Salt Lake and Midvale shelters and is responsible for contracting with providers such as the Road Home.
"Sometimes we have to make a change," Niederhauser mused.
Three homeless resource centers are currently in the works to collectively displace the downtown Road Home. Cochrane told the Deseret News that five different organizations have applied to become the chief service provider at one or more of those locations.
Cochrane said in an interview that Shelter the Homeless would "be fair to the Road Home as one of five applicants."
"It's hard to compare," Cochrane conceded. "You have providers (who applied) who have never operated a homeless shelter."
Last week, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee opted to approve only 1/6 of the Road Home's appropriation, saying the committee wanted a chance to review the results of the audit before deciding how much of its total allocation it should dispense. The funding is expected to last until August, when the committee will meet again.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a member of that committee, who once went undercover and spent a night at the Road Home to experience it firsthand, said Tuesday that "what we see in the audit is disturbing."
McAdams said if the Road Home doesn't take "immediate steps" to address the issues raised, "it certainly raises questions about their ability to be a provider long-term." "It's not compassionate to (place) ... some of our most vulnerable people in a situation where they're surrounded by crime and drugs," McAdams told the Deseret News.
King told Minkevitch on Tuesday it is important for the Road Home to show it is "acting competently and vigorously" in response to the audit, or else the organization "is not going to get the resources it needs."