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State officials set aside $4 million for offer to buy downtown homeless shelter

Leaders also unfreeze Road Home funds, add $1.4 million for increased security until 2019 closure

SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says "there's a lot of things that keep me awake at night."

"And one of those," Cox said during a two-hour long meeting of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee on Wednesday, is the "transition" of when the Road Home's downtown homeless shelter is slated to shut its doors forever and be replaced by the three new homeless resource centers currently under construction — scheduled for completion roughly 11 months from now.

So Cox, who is chairman of the state committee, said he asked his team to start looking into ways to make sure that "transition" of moving hundreds of people out of the shelter and into the new centers will be smooth. And that's when "the idea came," he said, for the state to purchase the property so it could enter into a lease with the Road Home to "make that transition hand-in-hand."

So what would happen with the property, in the heart of downtown's Rio Grande neighborhood, after it's empty?

People walk past the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
People walk past the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Cox suggested perhaps demolishing the building replacing it with a storage and gallery space for the Utah Department of Heritage and Art's artifact collection, which he said is currently sitting in a "leaky" basement, out of sight from the public eye.

"I get to go down there once every six months and snoop around a little bit — it's really cool, and I wish everyone got to do that," Cox said. "It would be a great opportunity to have something to showcase for people to come."

Cox's pitch saw no opposition and was supported by members including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupksi, who said city officials have hoped the property to be "activated" for public use, whatever happens to it.

The State Homeless Coordinating Committee voted to set aside $4 million to make an offer on the shelter property to Shelter the Homeless, which currently leases the facility to the Road Home.

Whether Shelter the Homeless accepts the offer will be up to its board, and the outcome of a fair-market appraisal that's pending.

But already it appears $4 million might not be enough.

According to 2018 values reported by the Salt Lake County assessor's office, the property and building at 210 S. Rio Grande Street is valued at more than $7.6 million, up from about $3.2 million in 2017.

"We're really hoping the appraisal comes in under $4 million," Cox said when asked about the land's value.

If the appraisal comes back "significantly more than that, we don't have the funding right now," Cox said. "We would likely have to get legislative approval for that, so it becomes less likely that that transition would take place."

The Road Home has worked out of the downtown facility since 1988. When asked about the possible sale Wednesday, Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, shrugged.

"Either way, I feel that we would be working with a partner who is invested in this issue and wants to assure that there is a thoughtful transition into the new model," he said.

"It's about improvement," he continued, noting the three new resource centers are designed as shelters, whereas the current facility was not initially built to house people experiencing homelessness.

"There are a lot of pluses in all of this," he said.

Unfrozen funds

The $4 million offer wasn't the only action the State Homeless Coordinating Committee took Wednesday to address the future of the Road Home, which recently came under fire after a critical state legislative audit found widespread drug use and lack of security.

The committee also voted to unfreeze nearly all of the Road Home's annual funds that were put on hold, totaling more than $3.7 million, for more than three months until the committee could review the results of the audit and actions shelter officials took to address its red flags.

The state committee also voted to grant an additional $1.4 million to help fund the Road Home's "safety and security plan" proposed to address the audit's concerns.

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, reported to the committee that changes inside the Road Home included a revised procedure and retraining of employees for bag checks and check-in processes; installing a walk-through metal detector; a two-week pilot program in partnership with the Department of Public Safety and Salt Lake City police to test the efficacy of the new processes; and sweeps with drug- and weapon-sniffing dogs.

Other changes are also in the works, including a restructuring of the shelters' dorms to separate people who are seeking treatment for substance abuse disorder from those who may violate shelter rules, as well as staffing changes to hire a security training officer and a restroom attendant to report any illicit activities to security, according to the Road Homes plan.

"We want to make sure while we're making all those strides that we maintain our integrity for best practices, which involve a housing-first approach, trauma-informed care, and also making sure that we provide access for people who are in great need," Minkevitch said. "That is often referred to as low-barrier shelter."

"What low-barrier shelter isn't is ... some place without rules or any expectations," Minkevitch continued. "What low-barrier shelter is is a welcoming (place) that respects people's security and (helps) those who are in greatest need to have access to the shelter. We want to make sure our environment is comfortable, safe, equitable and accessible."

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a member of the state committee and a board member of Shelter the Homeless, was one of the loudest voices of concern when the state audit was released in May, calling the audit "damning" and demanding immediate action.

McAdams also secretly spent a night in the downtown shelter last summer, where he said he felt "unsafe" and witnessed blatant drug use and violence inside the men's dorms.

McAdams on Wednesday, before motioning to approve the rest of the Road Home's funding, praised the Road Home for taking action, though he noted progress still needs to be made.

"I think we've made incredible strides," McAdams said, adding that while "I don't think anybody is opposed to the notion of low-barrier shelter," that "doesn't mean we have absolute tolerance of anything."

"Maybe for too long we tolerated too much," McAdams continued, noting that he's met "too many people who say they're homeless and need services but refuse to go to the Road Home because they don't feel safe."

McAdams also urged Minkevitch to continue exploring ways to have "some rules and standards in place" for an "array" of consequences to rule violations to avoid simply evicting homeless clients for all rule violations.

Minkevitch nodded as McAdams made his suggestions. In an interview after the meeting, Minkevitch called the state's release of the rest of the Road Home's ask "an important development."

"We also appreciate the foresight of the committee to support us in implementing the safety and security plan," Minkevitch said, noting that it wouldn't be possible without the additional money.