SALT LAKE CITY — After a winter fraught with difficulties as Salt Lake County transitioned its homeless population into a new shelter system, homelessness leaders are already working to create overflow options for this winter amid social distancing.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, which works with homeless service providers statewide, is reviewing draft winter plans through which officials hope to provide at least 268 and up to 300 overflow beds — and grapple with concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funding has already been found to lease St. Vincent de Paul for up to 58 men. But the coalition is looking for funding and additional facilities for up to about 150 more people, said Jean Hill, a leader of the coalition.
The group also has hotel vouchers and facilities that have agreed to house 40 women, but additional funding may still be needed for 40 more, Hill said.
Last year, after the closing of the downtown Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City and the opening of three new resource centers with a collective 700 beds, full shelters led officials to set up a temporary overflow shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood. That shelter closed in April.
This year, the pandemic is also expected to exacerbate need.
“In terms of COVID itself, I think it won’t add many more people to the numbers. My concern is people losing their jobs, people being evicted. If the moratoriums and unemployment benefits end and people lose their housing, then we are going to see a bigger influx into the homeless system, and that will cause a lot of issues,” Hill said.
“Because of the distancing requirements and because there was a real and legitimate fear that if COVID hits the resource centers, it’s going to spread rapidly because you’re in congregant living, so it’s really difficult to spread people out,” she said.
“That created some issues especially when we did have some cases happen at one of the resource centers.”
Since then, Hill noted the centers have mostly kept the disease out, and now have a lower infection rate than the rest of the community due to stringent health screenings and cleaning measures. But officials are still concerned about potentially losing some of the 700 beds when winter hits due to infection.
Other aspects of the current winter plan depend on homelessness officials’ ability to access pandemic relief funding, Hill said. They are looking for an overflow facility that will either be available permanently or as-needed during the winter, according to the plan, as well as a hotel to house up to 130 at-risk men and/or women over age 60, or with underlying health conditions.
The plan also includes continuing to help those experiencing homelessness find housing, and using pandemic relief funding to do so.
Other options including a sanctioned encampment and car camping — which have not been implemented before in the area — were also considered, but the coalition determined those options would be more expensive and difficult to manage than it is to lease buildings, Hill said.