Facebook Twitter

Utah leaders ask landlords to help amid homeless shelter capacity ‘crisis’

Officials still intent on closing downtown shelter in 4 weeks

SHARE Utah leaders ask landlords to help amid homeless shelter capacity ‘crisis’
merlin_16845.jpg

Officers Jonathon Leagua, Erwin Manriquez and Kevin Pickett operate drones as they and others canvass areas of the city looking for those who are homeless who might be in need of special help in the bitter cold temperatures on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Officers use drones to fly over heavy wooded areas looking for homeless camps.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The afternoon after a cold snap descended on Utah bringing record-cold temperatures to the Wasatch Front, top state, city and county leaders huddled in the governor’s office Wednesday to come up with a game plan.

Wednesday’s closed door meeting between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff David Litvack, and state staff was to address key questions facing Salt Lake City’s homeless system:

When will the Road Home’s downtown shelter close — or will it? And where will people experiencing homelessness go if they don’t fit into Utah’s three brand new homeless resource centers?

More than an hour and a half later, they emerged to tell a gaggle of reporters waiting in the hall, that yes, the Road Home’s downtown homeless shelter is still slated to close — in four weeks — and no, they’re not seeking an additional site for emergency overflow.

“We’ll get back together in four weeks and see where we are, but the plan right now is to close the shelter,” said Cox, the lead state official on homelessness issues who is also running to be Utah’s next governor.

“We think that’s best for everyone. The service providers would prefer that. The county would prefer that. The city would prefer that. The state would prefer that. That’s where we are, and that’s what we’re pushing toward. We fully expect that to happen in four weeks.”

Instead, in order to address capacity issues at the new homeless resource centers that are already overflowing, Cox announced a new “housing push” over the next four weeks to help break through a lack-of-housing bottleneck they say has been aggravating capacity issues.

The “housing push” will use up to $1 million in additional state and city resources to get people into housing, calling on landlords to be part of the solution.

“No additional overflow option will be announced at this time,” Cox said. “The plan is to decrease the demand with housing, residential treatment beds, and diversion, and utilize current overflow at St. Vincent de Paul’s dining hall and the use of hotel and motel vouchers where needed.”

The announcement came as temperatures dropped to staggering lows. At 3:37 a.m. Wednesday, Salt Lake City temperatures was 14 degrees — the coldest recorded during any October day since 1874.

Even as the leaders were meeting Wednesday, freezing temperatures worried other homeless advocates and political leaders throughout the Wasatch Front.

Up north, where Weber County has seen a disproportionate number of homeless people starting last year, Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell was “very concerned about the plight of homeless persons, particularly families, during this sudden and extreme cold snap,” Ogden police said in a statement.

As a result, Caldwell asked Ogden police to conduct a “wellness sweep” of the Ogden area to seek any homeless individuals under distress or at risk due to the cold. Police conducted the sweep Wednesday afternoon.

The morning’s frigid temperatures were indicative of a problem facing the state’s political leaders and homeless advocates as winter approaches, threatening the lives of homeless people sleeping on Utah streets — and as leaders scramble to ensure Utah’s newly revamped system will have shelter options for everyone in need.

Proposing other methods that they say will solve capacity issues, Utah leaders are still intent on closing the Road Home’s downtown shelter — an up-to 1,100-bed emergency shelter that has been the subject of political and public scrutiny after a state audit found drug use and security issues from inside its walls last year.

The transition to Utah’s new homeless system has been years in the making, after a coalition of stakeholders recommended breaking up the downtown shelter into smaller, scattered sites, with hard caps on the bed capacity to prevent a shelter from growing into an unmanageable population.

“Keeping the downtown shelter open is not a good option for several reasons,” Cox said, citing its size, security concerns and staffing issues.

“Keeping the downtown shelter open would be a step backwards and a step away from the new system,” Cox continued. “The sooner we do this, the sooner we focus on the new model, the sooner the focus will truly be on housing first.”

Upwards of $63 million in private and public dollars have already been spent on the construction of the two, 200-bed homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and the 300-bed men’s shelter in South Salt Lake, which has yet to open.

For years, some have expressed skepticism about whether the new centers’ capacity total of 700 beds would be enough to meet demand. State officials last year, when responding to those concerns, said the need for an additional overflow shelter would be a “worst-case scenario.” They expressed confidence that other methods to divert people from shelters — such as housing programs, motel vouchers or other strategies — would make due.

Weeks after the centers in Salt Lake City opened, they’ve already reached capacity — meaning homeless service providers have had to use motel voucher money or overflow capacity at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall as a backup option for those unable to get beds at the centers.

State officials have planned all along to have emergency winter overflow at St. Vincent’s across the street from the downtown shelter, but the dining hall only has room for 58 mats.

What wasn’t expected, Cox said, was that average length of stay for people at the new centers would increase. He said that’s led to lower turnover and strained capacity, not because there has been any influx of people seeking shelter from other states.

“It’s none of that. It’s people are staying longer. Some of that is good news,” Cox said. “People who didn’t feel safe in the downtown shelter ... are now coming and getting services. We see that actually as a positive.”

Meanwhile, the 300-bed South Salt Lake men’s center — not slated to open to clients until mid-November — is already expected to hit capacity.

As of Tuesday night, 460 men slept in the Road Home downtown, according to Matt Minkevitch, the shelter’s executive director. Across the street, St. Vincent’s overflow was one mat away from hitting maximum capacity, with 57 women sleeping on the dining room floor.

Those numbers have steadily grown from eight days ago, when the Road Home reported the downtown shelter was housing 408 men. Confronted with those numbers last week, the board of directors of the new resource centers’ owner, Shelter the Homeless, was faced with a question: Where will those other 100-plus men go once the 300-bed South Salt Lake center is full?

“I have faith that our collaboration will find a way to welcome desperately cold people into warmth,” Minkevitch said. “There are too many thoughtful people sharing this responsibility to not allow people in from the cold.”

Keeping the downtown shelter open — despite heavy political will to close it — was one option considered still on the table.

But Wednesday, Cox and Department of Workforce Services staff presented their plan to find between 50 and 60 units through a Salt Lake City-spearheaded initiative to find housing to free up beds at the centers.

“This will require landlords stepping up and being part of the solution,” Cox said, announcing the “call to action” to landlords to review their inventory and to find available units. A similar call to landlords was made in April, and they were able to house 134 people between April and August, he said.

“We have people now who have vouchers who would qualify to get into subsidized housing, but we haven’t been able to locate units for them right now,” Cox said. “We know they’re out there, we just need to coordinate and talk to people, and that’s really going to be the push by the city.”

The plan also includes using up to 50 motel vouchers, and filling up to 78 drug treatment beds provided through Odyssey House.

Meanwhile, leaders are also considering using Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center, located next to St. Vincents, as additional overnight overflow — not to provide beds, but to be more of an overnight waiting area — if needs be. But that would require a conditional use permit approved by Salt Lake City leaders.

Biskupski didn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting because she was traveling back from Washington D.C., but Litvack said homeless clients have housing vouchers “in hand” and have been paired with case managers, but the city still needs to find housing units.

“So we need landlords to come and be a part of this thing,” he said. “They’ve answered the call before.”

Litvack said city, county and state leaders have learned over the past several years that “crisis” has driven solutions.

“At a time where there is a sense of urgency, at a time that there is a sense of crisis, we can use that to move into the right direction,” he said.

Wilson said there is enormous will among political and homeless leaders intent on keeping everyone out of the cold, noting there is a daily phone call held between people who are “on top of this issue, assessing the challenge of the community.”

“There is an army behind the effort,” she said. “We want to make it clear that we are committed to this, that we have solutions, that we are driving toward those solutions.”

Pamela Atkinson, a prominent local advocate for the homeless, said even though weather has been “atrocious,” it’s drawing more people to Utah’s new homeless system, and she sees that as something positive.

“The resource centers are working,” she said. “I think the positive caring and the professionalism of the staff and the case management that’s going on is going to bring even more quantifiable outcomes.”