SALT LAKE CITY — The board of the nonprofit that owns the Road Home's homeless shelters met Wednesday to review the results of a state audit that found lax security and widespread drug use — findings that board member Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams called "damning" and "incredibly troubling."
"I have to admit, I've been a staunch defender of the Road Home for many years. … (But) this audit shook my confidence in the organization," McAdams said, adding that he was "very disappointed" by Road Home leaders' response to the audit that he said "fell short of recognizing the serious nature of things described in this report."
"I felt like the response was in the nature of a P.R. crisis, not a (safety) crisis," he said.
The mayor's comments at the Shelter the Homeless board meeting comes amid a critical time for the nonprofit, currently in the process of constructing three new homeless resource centers meant to replace the Road Home's downtown shelter when it closes in the summer of 2019.
Shelter the Homeless is also in the process of searching to find experienced homeless providers to operate those three new shelters. The Road Home is one of those providers that applied in a competitive bid process to be an operator.
Last week's state audit found "serious concerns" for health and safety in not only the downtown shelter but also the Road Home's other facilities, including the Midvale family shelter that's supposed to play a role in the overhauled homeless system, as well as the Palmer Court supportive housing complex.
Wednesday's discussion at times turned tense as Matt Minkevitch, the Road Home's executive director, responded to McAdams, as well as questions about what actions are being taken to address the audit's findings.
Minkevitch said he "certainly disagreed" that the Road Home isn't taking the audit "seriously" or the idea that it's being treated as a "P.R. crisis."
"We feel like we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands," Minkevitch said. "It's complex, and we feel there are people currently utilizing the shelter for whom shelter is inappropriate."
In addition to people "in the throes of addiction," Minkevitch said shelter staff have been seeing a rising number of people with serious health concerns who would benefit from being diverted from emergency shelter. But there's a constant struggle to find resources for housing, medical care and addiction treatment.
Minkevitch said clients who become "disruptive" are sent out of the shelter to the St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall to keep them out of the cold, but those clients are "probably some of our highest-need individuals" who would benefit from on-site case mental health or substance abuse case management.
"This is about how we deal with very complex problems, and they are tremendously frustrating," Minkevitch said.
But aside from mentions of perhaps investing in some more metal detectors and requests to increase security, board members left Wednesday with few other details on exactly what will be done to address the inconsistency in how the Road Home addresses security concerns and drug use within its walls.
The discussion was extended for another day, even though McAdams said he's "tired of talking" about reforms to the Road Home's shelter, especially because those talks began three years ago, and "it's been like pulling teeth to get some of these changes made."
"I want to see an organization that is responding proactively," the mayor said. "It's time to start holding the organization accountable."
Board member Josh Romney, local businessman and son of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said he shares McAdams' frustrations, but added that perhaps there's a "philosophical difference" between Shelter the Homeless and the Road Home's written drug policies and the desire to be compassionate to the homeless and not kick them out to the streets for doing drugs.
Romney suggested the Shelter the Homeless board make clear to the Road Home what's to be expected in its policies, while he also asked the Road Home to be more clear about how it's going to improve.
"That's what I want from you is, 'Here's what we've done wrong,' because we are in a bad place," Romney said. "There is no ifs, ands, or buts about it, we are in a bad place."
In an interview after the meeting, Minkevitch said the Road Home is already working toward "immediate changes" and "resources to assist us as it relates to safety," such as exploring trained security helping with the check-in process.
Ahead of the audit's release last week, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee placed a majority of the Road Home's funding for the next year on hold until the audit could be reviewed in August. Minkevitch said he expects some changes will be in place by then, but he noted "all concerns" will be difficult to address without help from other stakeholders.
"I think there are broader issues at play," Minkevitch said. "The severe lack of affordable housing, you know, we've got to talk about that. And that's not going to be solved by August."
But what if the Road Home doesn't address those concerns by the time the state revisits the Road Home's funding?
McAdams said he doesn't want to "do anything that's going to jeopardize people in need," but if that's the case "we can't look the other way and continue to ignore what I think is a failure of the organization."
"I don't expect them to solve the problem overnight, but that doesn't mean we have to continue to look the other way," McAdams said. "We have to find some middle ground between no tolerance and absolute tolerance."