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Salt Lake County leasing entire hotel to house ‘highest risk’ homeless

Sugar House temporary shelter still slated to close Wednesday

Whoever said “The only thing that is constant is change” obviously had nothing to do with building a convention hotel in Salt Lake City. Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — Less than two days away from the slated closure of the temporary homeless shelter in Sugar House, Salt Lake County officials announced they are leasing an entire hotel to house homeless clients who face the “highest risk” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hotel — which officials are declining to name, citing privacy concerns — will house roughly 130 “asymptomatic clients” who are either over the age of 60 or have underlying health issues.

“These individuals are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable within our homeless community. It is imperative we do whatever we can to lessen the chances of COVID-19 impacting their lives,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a statement issued Monday. “We appreciate the hotel operator working with us to provide this extra layer of protection for our highest risk clients.”

Each of the up to 133 people who are prioritized for the hotel will be either getting their own room or pairing up with roommates, based on their individual circumstances, said David Litvack, a policy adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who has been teaming up with Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships for Salt Lake County, in a joint effort to manage COVID-19 among vulnerable populations in Salt Lake County.

“We’re trying to get the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable as safe as possible,” Fife told the Deseret News in an interview Monday.

County officials said the homeless clients began being transported into the hotel on Friday, and “the moves will continue in phases over the coming days,” according to a news release issued Monday. The county will lease the hotel for at least two weeks and has an option to extend.

On-site staff, case managers and security will be at the hotel, along with behavioral health support, Fife said. Three meals a day, provided by Catholic Community Services and Salt Lake County’s Meals on Wheels program, if clients qualify, will be delivered to individuals in their hotel rooms, Litvack said.

Officials are encouraging homeless clients to “stay safe, stay home” in their rooms, Litvack said, but security won’t be forcing individuals to stay if they wish to leave.

“It’s not a lockdown facility,” Litvack said, but rather staff will be educating and encouraging clients to stay in their rooms as much as possible and practice social distancing from one another.

The hotel lease was made possible after the county mayor used her executive powers amid the county’s declared emergency to execute the contract, Wilson’s spokeswoman Chloe Morroni said. Because she used her emergency powers, Wilson did not need a vote from the Salt Lake County Council to execute the contract.

County officials did not disclose the contract Monday. Asked how much the county is paying, Morroni declined to disclose the figure, but noted the expense will be eligible for federal reimbursement as a COVID-19 expense.

“While we don’t want to get into the specifics of the contract with the provider, we have received a reasonable below-market nightly hotel rate, comparable to all other hotel partners we are working with,” Morroni said. “All expenses related to this are appropriate to be reimbursed by federal funding that (Salt Lake County) has received for the COVID-19 emergency response.”

The announcement comes days after officials reported the first confirmed COVID-19 cases within the Salt Lake County homeless population, including two men in the 300-bed South Salt Lake men’s resource center, which has since been turned into a quarantine facility, accepting no new clients.

The positive COVID-19 cases put additional pressure on Utah’s already strained homeless system, which had already been operating at capacity or near capacity even before the pandemic, and before an earthquake rendered the Rescue Mission’s downtown facility uninhabitable for months.

Earlier this month, officials had told the Deseret News they still planned to shut down both winter overflow shelters at St. Vincent’s and the 145-bed Sugar House temporary shelter by Wednesday. But Friday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a proclamation to extend the 58-mat winter overflow at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, allowing it to continue operating past its April 15 closure deadline until June 30. That proclamation did not extend the Sugar House shelter’s closure deadline.

City leaders’ move to open the Sugar House winter overflow shelter came after 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.

Fife and Litvack said the Sugar House shelter is still slated to close in two days, and they believe the hotel and the extension of St. Vincent’s overflow will offer enough shelter capacity to those in need. Officials are also expanding an existing motel voucher program, which roomed up to 65 women, to now up to 80 beds for both men and women if need be, Litvack said.

Asked where individuals should go to seek shelter if county officials aren’t releasing the name or location of the hotel, Fife said clients staying at the hotel are only going there with a referral, so those seeking shelter can still find services at Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center, 437 W. 200 South, or call 801-990-9999 for emergency shelter options.

Both winter overflows at Sugar House and St. Vincent’s had been operating at or near capacity in winter months. Typically, demand for shelter decreases as more homeless decide to sleep on the streets or camp in other areas as weather warms.

Litvack said as of last week, the Sugar House shelter was housing between 100 and 118 men per night, on average.

Fife said homeless service providers and operators of Salt Lake County homeless resource centers have created lists to prioritize which “high-risk” clients will be transported to the hotel if they want to.

“We can’t force them into safe housing, but we can sure invite them to have a place where they can absolutely and appropriately social distance themselves,” Fife said.

As they’re transported, they’ll open up beds at the new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake for those coming from the Sugar House shelter but who don’t qualify for a bed at the hotel.

Fife said homeless clients over the age of 60 who have an underlying health condition are giving first priority for the hotel. Then comes those who are just over the age of 60, and those who are under the age of 60 but with an underlying health condition.

“They can be hit the hardest with COVID-19, so we’re working hard to protect them,” Fife said.

Additionally, Fife said Salt Lake County still has quarantine centers set up in various county-owned facilities (which officials also aren’t identifying for privacy) for people needing to self-quarantine but who have nowhere to go, whether it be homeless individuals or people wanting to quarantine away from high-risk family members.

Salt Lake County homeless service providers including Volunteers of America, Catholic Community Services and the Road Home teamed up to operate the new hotel, Fife said. Some county employees volunteered to work at the hotel after their usual jobs have slowed down during the pandemic, she said.

Additionally, the hotel’s owner now has a revenue stream amid difficult economic times.

“Hopefully this is a win for everyone,” Fife said. “We can give the hotel owner a little bit of revenue stream, we can keep people safe and alleviate some of the capacity issues and social distancing issues within our entire (homeless system).”

“We are hopeful,” she added, “This is one of the strategies we are putting into place that can be a good overall situation for everyone involved.”