SALT LAKE CITY — March was a brutal month for Utah’s homeless system. But there’s still another hurdle ahead.
First the global coronavirus pandemic complicated all efforts related to homelessness. Then an earthquake rendered the Rescue Mission’s downtown building uninhabitable for months. All that hasn’t stopped the clock from ticking, and a deadline is fast approaching to shutter the 150-bed Sugar House temporary shelter and the 58-mat winter overflow at St. Vincent de Paul’s dining hall.
City and county leaders say they’re still planning to shut down both winter overflow shelters on April 15. As of Wednesday, that deadline was less than 15 days away, but officials didn’t have a plan in place yet to house any who may have nowhere else to go once the facilities shut down.
But they say they’re working on it, and they’ll have a plan soon.
“There’s a lot of really hardworking, caring, empathetic individuals and organizations that are working hard on all fronts with individuals experiencing homelessness and the homelessness community to make sure needs are met,” said David Litvack, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s senior policy adviser, who has been leading city efforts to tackle homelessness.
Litvack said city leaders completed a survey of homeless individuals who have been staying at the Sugar House shelter, at 2234 S. Highland Drive, and St. Vincent’s, at 437 W. 200 South, two weeks ago, but still need to review the results to determine how many individuals won’t have anywhere else to go when the overflow shelters close.
Litvack said city officials have heard “anecdotally” that some homeless individuals staying at the shelters have lined up other arrangements, including perhaps staying with family for friends. But he said he still needs to review the results of the survey to nail down a number of people who won’t have shelter.
“We’re going to (review) that information to understand what the sheltering need would be once the overflow shelters close,” Litvack said.
But so far, officials have not identified another facility to open for additional shelter. Litvack said city and county officials are working with homeless providers and other stakeholders to figure out next steps.
“We’re still working with providers to identify some additional strategies,” he said. “That’s why we did the survey to understand what the need is going to look like.”
Litvack said he did not know yet how many people the survey identified as needing shelter once the facilities close, but he expects that to be figured out soon.
“We have been, throughout all of this, meeting on a regular basis in preparation for this, then got interrupted a little bit the last couple of weeks,” Litvack said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and the earthquake that have kept officials busy. “But we are continuing to work through it.”
City leaders’ move to open the Sugar House winter overflow shelter came after recent protests over the late-November closure of the Road Home’s downtown homeless shelter, meant to cap off Utah’s shift to a new homeless services delivery system with three new resource centers in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.
Those homeless resource centers have lingered at- or near-capacity since their opening, and homeless service providers have relied on the winter overflow shelters, along with motel vouchers, to help house those who aren’t able to get a bed in the new centers or haven’t wanted to move away from the downtown area.
Litvack said the winter overflow shelters have also rested at- or near-capacity recently, though typically demand for shelter decreases as temperatures rise. Still, officials want to ensure people experiencing homelessness have options to get shelter if they need it, he said.
“Providers are still working feverishly on connecting people to housing,” Litvack said. “Always, housing is our primary goal and purpose, so that effort is continuing and will continue as part of this response.”
As officials continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic — with a county task force specifically assigned to protect particularly vulnerable populations like the homeless — the Sugar House shelter, which has room for up to 150 cots, isn’t an ideal environment to practice social distancing.
Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Erin Litvack, who is David Litvack’s wife, told the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday the Sugar House shelter doesn’t provide the “best circumstances” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless.
“Right now we’re doing the best we can to keep those folks safe and educate them and provide as much distancing as possible,” she said. “But it’s difficult.”
The new homeless resource centers are much bigger facilities and have larger living areas, but clients still sleep in bunk and dorm areas that make social distancing difficult. Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships for Salt Lake County, said the resource centers’ staff is “doing everything they can to encourage social distancing, up hand-washing, disinfect to keep people and staff safe inside those buildings.”
On Wednesday, Salt Lake County launched several new “outreach teams” formed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst the unsheltered homeless population, many of which camp along Salt Lake City streets or parks.
Fife said the teams, which include Volunteers of America outreach workers and nurses, aim to provide the homeless COVID-19 screenings, temperature checks, education on social distancing, and seek to connect individuals to available services. A testing tent has also been set up outside Fourth Street Clinic.
So far, no homeless individuals have tested positive for the virus, Fife said, even though “dozens” have been tested.
“Not yet,” she said. “I just knock on wood every time.”
Still, Fife said her team is bracing for not if, but when it begins spreading among Utah’s most needy. When it does, county officials have already begun setting up “quarantine isolation centers” in unnamed county-owned buildings (including recreation centers, senior centers and libraries) for individuals who need to quarantine but can’t at home.
About 50 Rescue Mission clients who had nowhere to go when the nonprofit’s downtown building sustained damage from the earthquake have been housed in one of those county-owned buildings, the Marv Jenson Recreation Center in South Jordan. Asked if that facility, or any other county-owned buildings that could be used for an isolation center, is being considered for an overflow shelter, David Litvack said they weren’t.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind those facilities right now are being set up as part of COVID-19 response and to manage the public health crisis,” he said, adding that officials don’t want to “mix” the facilities’ purposes.
Meanwhile, worries of a gloomy economy and its potential impact on the housing market looms over Utah’s already strained homeless system. Gov. Gary Herbert announced Wednesday a 45-day freeze on new evictions in Utah, an executive order that will also allow residential renters to defer rent until May 15.
The governor’s orders allowed homeless providers a small breath of relief, but increased homelessness due to a dimming economy is still a worry.
“Absolutely,” David Litvack said, “We should always be concerned about evictions leading to homelessness, particularly when they can be prevented.”