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Homeless providers struggling to fill empty beds at South Salt Lake center

Some homeless refuse to leave downtown area as advocates work to iron out kinks, address confusion

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Keith Neijstrom, an environmental health technician, puts a bag of trash into the back of a truck as health department officials, Utah Highway Patrol troopers and Salt Lake City police officers clean up a homelss camp in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Poverty advocate Bill Tibbitts recalls speaking with a man who had a bed at the Road Home’s downtown shelter before it closed, but recently spent four nights sitting in a chair rather than sleeping in one of the new homeless resource centers.

“He was clearly exhausted and had no idea what he needed to do to get a bed,” Tibbitts, the associate director at the Crossroads Urban Center, told the Deseret News on Wednesday.

That’s even though there have been on average 50 empty beds at the new resource centers systemwide. Though some nights two of the centers reach or near capacity, the South Salt Lake men’s resource center hasn’t yet maxed out its 300 beds.

That’s according to state data presented to a room full of homeless advocates, providers and other stakeholders during the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness’ meeting Wednesday.

Almost three weeks after the Road Home’s downtown shelter closure marked a significant leap for the transition into Salt Lake County’s new homeless system, officials met to discuss lingering kinks challenging providers.

Among those kinks include difficulty coordinating and filling beds, dispelling confusion about the new system and figuring out what to do with those who refuse to sleep in one of the centers or don’t want to leave the downtown area.

“No one is turned away,” stressed Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of social services for Utah Community Action, the agency coordinating intake for the three resource centers. “We want to find a warm place for everyone to stay every night.”

But there are challenges, Dickson said, depending on the client. The distance of the South Salt Lake center from downtown also presents its own logistical issues, she said, as well as confusion among the homeless about whether resource centers are at capacity. Some people also are reluctant to leave downtown.

“We’re striving toward continuous improvement,” Dickson said. “Every client is unique and they have their own individual needs.”

The data — taken over a two-week period beginning the day after the downtown shelter shuttered, Nov. 22 through Dec. 5 — shows the three resource centers with a total combined capacity of 700 beds have on average been housing 649 people, or about 93% full.

Those numbers, however, fluctuate night to night.

The systemwide high recorded within those two weeks was 689 beds filled at a peak night. The 200-bed Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center at its peak reached capacity, and the 200-bed mixed-gender Gail Miller Resource Center at its peak had only two beds available. The 300-bed South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center’s daily high was 291 beds filled.

In the meantime, the 58-mat overflow shelter for men at the downtown St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall has hit capacity essentially every night. Additionally, the Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center has stayed open 24/7 as a “warming center” overnight, where people can get out of the cold and ask for services.

The warming center has 100 chairs but isn’t permitted to be an overnight shelter where people can sleep. It hasn’t reached full capacity at any given moment, though. On Monday, 135 people checked in throughout the night, but no more than 67 people had been inside at one time, according to state officials.

Providers also use motel vouchers to free up space at the women’s center. Men haven’t been given motel vouchers because their overflow space is the St. Vincent Dining Hall, said Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers for America-Utah, the agency operating the women’s resource center.

Coalition members acknowledged there have been anecdotes of people spending multiple nights at the warming center unable to obtain beds, but lack data to determine how many.

Tibbitts said that’s “disappointing,” questioning if there are people who are now sleep-deprived because they haven’t been connected with services other than being offered a chair to sleep in night after night.

“People who have been sleep-deprived for a long time are going to have trouble doing anything else,” he said. “It makes it hard to look for places to live or to look for a job.”

Joseph Jensen, an administrator for the Utah Homeless Information Management System, the database that tracks homeless information, said that’s a data point state officials are “still trying to figure out,” noting it’s not so simple as cross-checking two lists because people come and go from the center multiple times throughout the night.

“That’s one of the things we’re really interested in and we’re working on those processes,” Jensen said.

Meanwhile, tents and makeshift encampments continue to crop up nightly at Salt Lake City’s Library Square, the new hot spot downtown for on-street camping. With the help of law enforcement, officials on Tuesday swept the area as part of a health department cleanup after posting notices the camps were illegal.

Pamela Atkinson, a local advocate for the homeless, emphasized Salt Lake County is still in the midst of a “transition” into a system that will take time to learn, both for providers and for people experiencing homelessness, and she urged people to be “patient.”

“It does involve change, and people are definitely resistant to change,” Atkinson said, noting some of those people who don’t want to leave downtown consider the area to be their “home.”

“That’s their family,” she said. “That’s their community.”

The coalition discussed strategies to continue on-street outreach to connect people with services and ways to help inform the homeless community of their options so no one feels turned away.

Still, no one is pulling the trigger on any additional overflow shelter options, though it’s on the back burner if officials determine it’s needed.

Rob Wessman, executive director of the Utah National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the coalition knows “we need to plan for a ‘what if’” — or if all facilities are full and “we get a horrible cold snap.” He called that situation a “cold blue.”

“We’re not just sitting here going, ‘Oh, it’s great,’” he said, noting they’re watching the data closely to determine if they need to consider more overflow options, though he didn’t specify what that plan could entail.

“We don’t want to wait to hit that point.”