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To fill 'gap' in Utah's new homeless system, group recommends 3 dorm-style buildings

SALT LAKE CITY — Tasked with finding gaps in Utah’s new homeless service system, a group of advocates and service providers saw a glaring need.

And they recommended that state officials consider an old-school solution: single-room occupancy housing, known in years past as boardinghouses.

Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson told the State Homeless Coordinating Committee on Wednesday that the seed for the group was planted a couple of years ago, when she was delivering meals and hearing from homeless people on a snowy and wet Christmas Day.

“What I kept on hearing is, ‘All I want is a room,’” she said. “‘I don’t want an apartment. I just want a small room.’”

Single-room occupancy housing consists of small, dorm-style rooms and shared bathrooms and/or kitchen.

The group’s suggestion to help service-resistant homeless people calls for building three, 50-unit properties — it didn’t say where — with rents limited to $200 per month and paid by the week when necessary.

Jonathan Hardy, director of Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services, said little was known about the homeless people who choose to avoid shelter, because their information doesn’t enter databases that the state uses.

A June survey of 165 of those people provided some key insights: Most of those surveyed didn’t want to live with family, friends or roommates. And nearly half had a source of income, including disability benefits.

“It’s not a lot of money, but they could pay some amount for housing,” he said.

Single-room occupancy housing was once a staple of the American downtown — a private bed and a fixed address with costs to suit low-income renters or those in transition. They were known as boardinghouses, rooming houses or flophouses.

But the stock dwindled as cities prohibited them — portrayed by critics as having seedy clientele and drawing frequent police calls — and neighborhoods gentrified. Across the country, nearly 900,000 units costing less than $200 per month were demolished or converted to other uses between 1974 and 1983 alone.

Few remain in Utah, where single-room occupancy buildings housed railroad laborers and miners during the state’s formative years. Salt Lake City went from 780 units in 1978 to 315 by 1992, according to a 1995 Associated Press story. Today, Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris said there are only 50 units left — all of them at the Rio Grande Hotel, 422 W. 300 South.

Tim Funk, a community housing advocate at the Crossroads Urban Center, said he’d like to see two or three times as many new units, and he still believes state leaders are “out of their gourd” in planning to close the Road Home shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande and reduce the overall number of shelter beds.

Still, he said, “if there’s discussion of there being replacement housing at $200 a unit and it’s well-managed and it’s dedicated to that purpose, God bless. Couldn’t be a better a thing. They need that housing now more than ever.”

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home and a longtime advocate for single-room occupancy housing, said it’s “150 steps in the right direction,” and he hopes it becomes a starting point for even more investment in single-room occupancy.

“If we get that into our housing inventory and we find the mechanisms to do that, we can transform our community,” he said.

Hardy said there are numerous possible funding sources, including the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. State leaders had also included $2 million in the funding plan for the new shelter system that could be used to erect an emergency overflow shelter, and at this juncture, Hardy doesn’t believe that facility will be necessary. Because there are shared kitchens and baths, single-occupancy units tend to be cheaper to build than other developments.

The bigger worry, Hardy said, is that there will be local opposition where they site the three facilities, which marked the debate about the new homeless shelters in recent years.

“This may be one where you get one 50-unit up and running and see how it responds,” Hardy said.

Joseph Jensen, administrator of the state’s Homeless Management Information System, told the committee Wednesday that the recommendation for 50-unit buildings was made with local sensitivities in mind, and that it wouldn't be financially feasible to go much smaller.

The group recommended that a subcommittee of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit board that owns the Road Home shelter and will operate the three new shelters, be formed to explore development options.

Minkevitch said that in an ideal world, single-room occupancy would be available up and down the Wasatch Front, and people who might otherwise be homeless would be able to remain in their communities, attached and connected to the families and friends who care about them.

Asked to describe who might benefit from the units, Minkevitch said the question conjured the scenario of being outside the shelter on a winter’s night, shoveling snow.

More often than not, he said, somebody will introduce themselves and offer to help shovel.

They then tell him who they were: “I was in the Navy,” or “I was a supervisor.”

“I was important, is what the subtitle to that conversation is,” he said. “You’ve got a man or a woman who is eager to express to you his or her value.”

People living on the street experience degradation and shame, Minkevitch said, that comes with defining themselves as homeless.

“This kind of housing, I think, would be an answer to many people’s prayers,” he said. “They’re not looking for much. Just a place to call home. They want to be able to go home from work and they want to be able to pay rent with the money they’ve earned.”