SALT LAKE CITY — Richard Adams broke down in tears while standing across the street from the Road Home’s downtown shelter on Thursday — the day the shelter officially shuttered to the public after decades of housing Utah’s homeless.
But he wasn’t lamenting the shelter’s closure.
Adams said he had been given a new bed in the brand new South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center that began taking in men from the downtown shelter on Monday, and he was looking forward to the change.
“It’s awesome. It’s nice. It’s clean,” Adams said. “I have no bed bugs.”
Adams started crying when he began telling the Deseret News of his addiction to alcohol and meth, and how he didn’t want his addictions to define him.
“And that’s what this is,” Adams said, tears rolling down his cheeks, pointing to the downtown shelter. “This is what this place is right now.”
To Adams, the Road Home’s downtown shelter was a place where he was constantly surrounded by addiction.
Asked if he’s ever tried to get drug treatment, Adams’ voice cracked when he answered.
“It’s easy to take the step, it’s harder to follow through.”
The Rio Grande neighborhood surrounding the downtown shelter at 210 Rio Grande St. was known for years as a haven for lawlessness and drug dealing, up until the summer of 2017 when state leaders launched Operation Rio Grande.
The operation aimed to root out crime and help clear the way for a momentous undertaking that was already years in the making — to transform Salt Lake County’s homeless system with the opening of three new resource centers, meant to break up the downtown’s up-to 1,100-bed shelter into more manageable, smaller centers.
Thursday, that shift took a final major step when officials announced the closure of the downtown shelter to Utah’s homeless, the afternoon the 300-bed South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center took in its last group of men.
“What that means, as of today, the downtown shelter is closed for services,” Michelle Flynn, interim executive director of the Road Home, told reporters at a news conference Thursday. “We’ll be moving out of that building by the end of the month.”
Officials promise to keep everyone out of the cold
The closure of the downtown shelter comes after months of delays and long-standing skepticism that the three new homeless resource centers — the 300-bed South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center, the 200-bed mixed gender Gail Miller Resource Center, and the 200-bed Geraldine E. King Resource Center — would be enough to keep the homeless out of the cold this winter.
The 200-bed Gail Miller and Geraldine E. King resource centers in Salt Lake City had already reached capacity some nights, though their availability is a moving target that changes nightly. The South South Lake men’s center is expected to hit capacity soon, with more than 400 men staying at the downtown shelter some nights leading up to its closure and as winter descends.
But Thursday, state and homelessness officials reiterated their pledge that everyone will have options to get off the streets.
“We will make sure we will have a place to get everyone out of the cold,” said Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services.
Overflow options include up to 58 mats for men at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall, and now space for up to 100 people at Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center, which will be used as an overnight “warming center” — not a place to sleep, but a warm place to wait in chairs — in addition to its day center services,
That’s in addition to using motel vouchers for women and increasing housing options after state and city officials put out a call to landlords to help house more people.
David Litvack, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, said 26 landlords had answered the call, bringing on 73 more units. As of Thursday, 12 people had been housed since the push was announced about a month ago, and 34 people in the “pipeline” have been approved for funding, but are still working with housing locators to move in. Litvack said there’s still a need for studio and one-bedroom apartments.
As of Wednesday night, about 180 men were staying in the downtown shelter, in addition to about 240 men who had been moved into the South Salt Lake center, Hardy said. By Thursday night, Flynn said only a “handful” of beds remained at the men’s center.
Some refuse to go to new homeless centers
The 58 mats of overflow at St. Vincent De Paul’s dining hall were also expected to hit or near capacity Thursday night since dozens of men have refused to leave the downtown area, according to Pamela Atkinson, a local homelessness advocate, amid fears and frustrations with the new system.
“Is everybody happy? No,” Atkinson said. “There are a lot of firm men who were very angry. ... They shared their anger in no uncertain words, but that’s our job to listen.”
Atkinson said many of the men who have refused to go felt as though their “community” downtown was being broken up.
“Many of our homeless friends formed a community. That was their community,” Atkinson said. “That was their family and we were saying to them, ‘So sorry, you have to move. We have to break you up.’ But you can form new communities out at the new resource center.”
Atkinson estimated roughly 70 to 80 people have said “they do not want to go to a center.”
“There are quite a few, and some have mental illness so we’re working at getting them into treatment,” Atkinson said. “But that’s their choice. The beds are available, and they’ve made their choice.”
Atkinson noted some have jobs downtown, but she also pointed out a shuttle runs daily back and forth between the new resource centers and the Weigand Center downtown so they still have access to downtown if need be.
Atkinson said she and other homeless providers have been and will continue working with the men to feel more comfortable with the transition, but she acknowledged change takes time. She noted others who were wary about the move earlier this week eventually came around — and some were “delighted” — when they learned of all the services at the new centers, including three meals a day.
“Some people who were angry are now safely out in the men’s center,” Atkinson said.
To Adams, he understands why some men have refused to go to the new centers.
“It’s difficult because a lot of these people have been here for so long,” Adams said. “This is all they know. They don’t want it to change. They don’t like change. People don’t like change.”
Brad Schiles, another man who talked with the Deseret News outside the downtown shelter on Thursday, said he didn’t get a bed at the new resource centers — and he didn’t try, saying he never stayed “one night” at the Road Home’s downtown shelter for the past four years he’s been homeless. Rather, Schiles said he’s been sleeping on the streets, reluctant to get “attached” to a facility. He said he survives on the streets even in freezing temperatures with “warm blankets and a tent.”
“I don’t want to make this my home,” he said of the shelter. “Some people really need this place, but that’s not me.”
However, Schiles said he is “curious” about the new resource center and he may “check it out.”
“I’ve heard it’s a really nice place,” he said. “This is a big move that I didn’t think would ever happen. So I’m really curious to see what it’s going to be like. So I may just try it out to see what it’s like.”