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First coronavirus, now earthquake further strain Utah’s homeless system

146-bed Rescue Mission of Salt Lake empty as it awaits repair from earthquake damage

The Rescue Mission is fenced off and under construction in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Parts of the building crumbled to the ground during Wednesday’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake that was centered near Magna.
The Rescue Mission is fenced off and under construction in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Parts of the building crumbled to the ground during Wednesday’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake that was centered near Magna.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County’s homeless system already had enough to grapple with, even before the global coronavirus pandemic made its way to Utah.

Salt Lake City had barely opened a 145-bed, temporary winter overflow shelter less than two months ago — and it’s under deadline to close in less than a month. The three new, multimillion-dollar homeless resource centers continue to operate at or near capacity each night. A special task force has been convened to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among Utah’s most vulnerable, a challenge in tight living spaces.

Then, early Wednesday morning, an earthquake rattled Utahns awake. It damaged dozens of buildings across the Wasatch Front and rendered them, at least for now, uninhabitable — including a homeless facility.

Bricks broke loose and tumbled off of an exterior wall of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, a downtown facility run by a faith-based nonprofit with a mission to shelter the homeless and treat drug addiction.

The downtown building, before the earthquake hit, had capacity for up to 146 men, and is the Rescue Mission’s largest facility.

No one was hurt. But after the quake, the future of the 120-year-old building is unclear — though Chris Croswhite, executive director of the mission, said Thursday he got some good news.

During an inspection Thursday, a city building inspector at no point hinted the building could be condemned, Croswhite told the Deseret News. But he did say he would write up a report for next steps, including possible repairs and whether a portion of the building could still be inhabited while those repairs are underway.

“We’re grateful that we have a path forward to repair the building and continue to be a home for the homeless,” Croswhite said.

It’s not yet clear how much it will cost to repair the building, Croswhite said, but he is hoping for generous donations as the Rescue Mission prepares for the price tag. He urged anyone able to donate to visit the Rescue Mission’s website.

“We are privately funded, and we greatly appreciate the community’s support in helping us repair our building,” he said.

But there were still plenty of other headaches to sort through. One of the most pressing was figuring out where the Rescue Mission’s clients would go in the meantime — and the answer to that is somewhat shrouded.

Croswhite — along with city and county officials — declined to disclose to the Deseret News where about 50 Rescue Mission clients had been relocated, with others housed with families and friends or through availability within in the existing system. They said it was because, amid a time of chaos, confusion and fears of coronavirus, they wanted to respect the men’s privacy.

“The county is focusing on meeting the needs of these individuals,” said Chloe Morroni, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s spokeswoman. “We don’t want any disruptions; we just want to help them transition to their temporary location. And we want to respect their privacy. They have been uprooted from their home.”

County and city officials, who worked together to site the temporary shelter, declined to give more details about the facility’s location — even a general area — while city and county leaders work daily to manage COVID-19 and now damage from Wednesday’s earthquake. They did say, however, the facility is “county-owned.”

“Once their initial needs are met, then we will likely be able to say the name of the shelter,” Morroni said.

That was the same reasoning given by Croswhite and David Litvack, a senior policy advisor to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall who has been working to help address homelessness needs amid the coronavirus crisis and now the earthquake’s path of destruction.

Siting homeless shelters has often come with political baggage. Salt Lake City leaders faced outrage when they initially attempted to site four 150-bed homeless resource centers in neighborhoods scattered across the city. South Salt Lake also fought the 300-bed resource center tooth and nail before their city was picked. Draper residents screamed and shouted at their mayor during a raucous town hall meeting until he rescinded his offer for their city to be considered for a center.

Officials say the unnamed location will likely be temporary until the Rescue Mission’s downtown building is repaired. But it’s not yet clear how long that will take.

“At this point in time, I don’t have a number of days,” Croswhite said, noting that the building inspector told him he would aim to finish his report either Friday or Monday, after which city officials would decide whether to allow people back into the building.

In the meantime, Croswhite said anyone who would otherwise seek shelter from the Rescue Mission should seek help at Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center downtown, 437 W. 200 South, where they could be connected with services or be transported to homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City or South Salt Lake if there are beds available.

Litvack said the Sugar House temporary homeless shelter and the other resource centers continue to operate at or near capacity, though their availability fluctuates daily. Of those 50 or so men who were relocated from the Rescue Mission facility, those who were in the midst of treatment are able to continue with their program, he said.

“If there’s one thing I’m learning through this work in emergency response around COVID-19 and yesterday with the earthquake is you also have to take it a moment at a time,” Litvack said. “Based on the inspection, we will go from there. And Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the homelessness service system will work together with the Rescue Mission to the best we can to serve to serve those individuals.”

Before Croswhite got news from the building inspector there could be a path forward for repair to the building, he worried about what the Rescue Mission — and the county’s entire homeless system — would do next.

“Our greatest concern is we were already stretched in Salt Lake County and the state with capacity to serve our homeless friends and now, in the midst of the (COVID-19) outbreak, we have lost our shelter beds, so there’s this short-term and long-term problem of where those people are going to go.”

But Croswhite credited Litvack and other county leaders for working together to find a solution.

“They have been stellar,” he said.

Meanwhile, city, county and homelessness leaders continue to be on guard against the spread of COVID-19, particularly in Utah’s homeless population. Officials have set up hand-washing stations in areas including Library Square, where those who don’t seek shelter tend to gather and camp. Homeless center staff have been instructed to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol to limit the spread by asking clients COVID-19 screening questions.

The Salt Lake County Health Department has also partnered with Fourth Street Clinic to triage people who show signs of illness. The health department has set up a tent at Fourth Street Clinic to serve those with symptoms.

Salt Lake County also secured two government-owned facilities to temporarily house people who don’t have any way to quarantine themselves, according to a news release circulated Tuesday. County officials also have not disclosed the location of those facilities due to “privacy concerns,” according to the release.

So far, no COVID-19 cases have been reported out of Utah’s homeless system.

Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the homeless resource centers, said it’s a challenging time for Utah’s homeless system. With COVID-19 and now the earthquake, it’s not only been a “perfect storm” of problems, he said, but a “tsunami.”

But, Cochrane said, officials are doing their best to manage.

“Everyone’s working around the clock to try to solve whatever comes, whatever we’re faced with,” he said. “We’re keeping a close pulse on it.”