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Inside Utah's new homeless centers: How will they be different?

SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since city and county leaders began the controversial process of siting three new homeless resource centers to replace the Road Home's troubled downtown shelter, fear that the new facilities would bring crime and drugs to three new neighborhoods fueled NIMBY-ism.

Throughout that process, politicians and homelessness advocates repeatedly promised — and continue to promise today — that these homeless resource centers will be different.

And as the first one nears its opening in the coming days, there are vast differences taking shape inside, and it's not just because it's a brand new building with clean floors and shiny surfaces.

As finishing touches were taking place last week inside the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center, officials from site operator Volunteers of America gave the Deseret News a tour of the 200-bed facility at 131 E. 700 South, showcasing what's to be expected when clients move in over the next few weeks.

From the beginning of the siting process, politicians and homeless advocates have insisted the new facilities be called resource centers — not shelters — to drill home the point that the buildings will be service-focused, featuring three meals a day, basic health care, job assistance and housing help.

During Friday's tour, services and resources took center stage from the first step inside the center's lobby.

Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Step 1 will be 'diversion' where possible

The very first thing clients will do is consult with a "diversion specialist," said Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of Utah Community Action, the organization that has been hired to conduct the intake process of the new resource centers.

That office — sitting next to a 24/7 security office — will be manned by a specialist tasked with doing everything in their power to prevent the client from checking into the homeless center in the first place, Dickson said. That could include family mediation to fix "burned bridges," conflict mediation with a landlord or financial support to help a client afford groceries so they can pay rent.

"Right here, it's the first thing they'll do," Dickson said. "We'll look at what barriers they have and what we can do to remove those barriers before they ever have to go into shelter."

Diversion has been part of the Road Home's model, but it hasn't been front-and-center like it will be in the new buildings, with offices right in the check-in lobby, Dickson said, standing by the front desk.

"Though these are beautiful, they're not their destination," Dickson said of the new homeless centers. "We want them to have permanent housing."

Andrew Johnston, vice president for program operations, said diversion will be the "first touchpoint" for all three of the new centers.

"We want to make sure the first entry point for anybody is, 'Let's divert from shelter' for everywhere you go," he said. "Anybody that's at-risk for becoming homeless, the quickest answer is to not become homeless."

Each shelter will have open doors for walk-ins, Johnston said, to foster a "no wrong door" philosophy. If a client is better suited for a different center than the one they walk into, they'll be assessed and referred to their best option.

Johnston urged clients to walk in and talk with a diversion specialist as soon as possible — even if they aren't homeless yet. "The sooner the better," he said, noting it's easier to provide rental assistance or food vouchers before eviction.

But what if housing programs are full?

"You're right, there's a huge need for housing in the community," Johnston acknowledged. But he said depending on income limits, special circumstances and different types of housing need, there is "a different level of scarcity than others." He said clients often don't know if they'll qualify for help, so it's worth a try.

"So come on in," he said.

If clients are unable to be diverted to alternative housing, Dickson said they will start the intake process at the front desk, where they'll get a "coordinated access" card and check into the state Homeless Management Information System, which will collect systemwide data. The card will also help clients check in and out of the center with ease, Dickson said.

Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What are the rules at Utah's new centers?

Before entering, clients will pass through a metal detector and a bag search to check for weapons or drugs and will be briefed on the center's rules.

"No drugs or alcohol in the building, period," Johnston said. "No weapons in the building. Those are hard rules."

But clients won't be kicked to the curb if they violate rules, Johnston added. Instead, staff will focus on having discussions with clients to address problems, and staff will encourage "community expectations" for safety and hygiene.

"We don't want to say, 'Three strikes, you're out,' because this is the only place you can come," Johnston said. "If they make mistakes, we want staff to talk to them about it and how do we problem-solve."

If clients repeatedly violate rules and endanger other clients, Johnston said staff might have to find different arrangements or transfer them to a new center. If they're coming into the facility intoxicated frequently, perhaps a detox center would be a better program. But those situations will need to be handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.

"The point is to help them live up to the standards of the community in here," Johnston said. "That transition from out in the streets to in here is something our staff is going to work with them on."

Overall, Johnston said their focus is to foster as "wide as door as possible."

"A low-barrier shelter doesn't mean low expectations," he said.

Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019. The center has a storage room for clients' belongings.
Volunteers of America employees wait for clients to arrive for tours at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019. The center has a storage room for clients' belongings.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Services, meals, donations

At check-in, clients will experience a "warm handoff" to case managers so "they always have someone helping them along the way," Dickson said.

Staff will focus on a "trauma-informed" approach, assuming that every client who comes to the shelter has experienced some form of trauma in their lives. Oftentimes, women experiencing homelessness are fleeing abusive situations, Johnston said.

"We want the client to be as comfortable as possible. … If they feel safe, they're going to do a lot more toward housing and their own needs," Johnston said. "We want to make sure this is not a place they get retraumatized."

Inside, clients will have the option to store items in at least two bins in a secure storage area, and will also have storage at their bedside, Johnston said.

As for meals, the cafeteria at the heart of the center can seat all 200 women at once. They'll be served three meals a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner — from a full-sized kitchen. The kitchen is only set up as a warming kitchen, so Catholic Community Services will be delivering prepared lunch and dinners daily, seven days a week. Staff will prepare breakfast on site, Johnston said.

All three of the homeless resource centers' kitchens could potentially be stand-alone kitchens in the future, but right now what makes sense is to prepare food in a centralized kitchen and transport meals daily, Johnston said.

The donation room features industrial-sized washers and dryers for daily cleaning of linens to minimize risk of bed bugs and lice. Clients will also have their own free washers and dryers to use daily.

"We want to keep it as clean as possible," Johnston said. "This has got to be a safe place, a healthy place."

Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of social services for Utah Community Action, and Andrew Johnston, vice president of program operations for Volunteers of America-Utah, walk past the client storage room at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Ce
Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of social services for Utah Community Action, and Andrew Johnston, vice president of program operations for Volunteers of America-Utah, walk past the client storage room at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Dorms, living spaces

Each of the dorms vary in bed counts so clients will have options to sleep in smaller or larger areas, depending on their needs. All of the dorms feature high ceilings and windows for natural light.

In the women's center, the smallest dorm has 16 beds, while the largest includes about 46 beds, Johnston said. Each dorm is connected to a "support room" with glass window panes, which will allow staff to monitor clients either through the windows or from security cameras.

Those offices can also be used for private rooms if needed, to help stop sickness from spreading or for clients with mental illness who don't feel comfortable in the dorms, Johnston said.

Staff will regularly walk the building for safety and security purposes, but they will also balance the clients' privacy so people don't feel like they're constantly being watched, Johnston said.

"Safety is a big, big piece in these buildings," he said.

Near the dorms, clients will have access to bathrooms and sinks, as well as rows of private showers. Some are wheelchair accessible.

Outside, clients will have access to a courtyard — a secure outdoor area to allow clients time outside without having to leave the facility. The courtyard also features a grass area for dogs.

Yes, the centers are pet-friendly facilities, Johnston said, adding that homeless advocates hope that will help some people come off the streets if they can bring their pets.

"We found that especially with folks with high anxiety or depression, animals are tremendous therapy," Johnston said. "So we don't want to force separations that way. We want to make sure they feel comfortable."

While there will be kennel space for dogs, they will also be allowed to sleep next to clients' beds to help minimize anxiety. The center also has a dog washing station, Johnston said.

Upstairs, clients will have access to a common area with lounge chairs and TVs. There's also a computer lab, staff offices, "flexible spaces" for group activities, presentations or group meetings, and case manager offices for homeless providers.

There's also a barber space for hair cuts and clinic room where clients will have access to an on-staff nurse who will be able to conduct health assessments or to coordinate emergency care. The 4th Street Clinic's mobile clinic will come to the centers on certain days of the week for more specialized services, Johnston said.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services' office building is right across the street from the women's center, so clients will be able to easily walk over for job assistance. As for the other centers, Johnston said workforce services employees are expected to have office space inside the facilities.

A seating area will be available for clients at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City. Photograph taken on Friday, July 26, 2019.
A seating area will be available for clients at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City. Photograph taken on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Transportation

At least one major detail remains hazy for the new homeless system: transportation.

"We're still working on the details," Johnston said, but noted that Volunteers of America will have five shuttles to use for clients with special circumstances who need transportation.

All three of the homeless centers are located outside of the Utah Transit Authority's free fare zone. However, the women's center is located less than half a mile away — so Johnston said staff is going to encourage clients to use the bus system to get to the free fare zone, where many existing homeless services such as Catholic Community Service's Weigand Center and the 4th Street Clinic will still exist downtown.

Staff may provide clients with bus tokens, but the details are still being worked out.