Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Thursday backed the call to add 300 additional emergency shelter beds to Salt Lake County’s homeless system.

“I want any Utahn who needs shelter — who wants a warm, safe place to sleep at night — to have that option by December of this year. We cannot go another year, let alone another winter, without the adequate space to shelter every single person who is out there on the street right now,” Mendenhall said.

“The data says the target is 300 beds, and that need has to be met in order for all the coordinating systems that facilitate homeless services in our city and county to function properly.”

But the mayor didn’t say where the beds will go. Rather, she called on other partners outside of Salt Lake City — including state leaders and other Salt Lake County cities — to step up.

“I’m here today to ask that the state support the coalition and its partners to do whatever it takes to get those beds online quickly, before winter, and that the beds be located not only in Salt Lake City, but also in other parts of Salt Lake County,” Mendenhall said.

She noted Salt Lake City currently hosts most of the 1,500 emergency shelter beds already part of the county’s homeless system and spends upward of $15 million a year on homeless issues. So it’s time other cities do more — and fast. She said Utah’s homeless can’t afford to go another winter without it.

State and local leaders announce a plan to add more emergency shelter beds for the homeless in Utah.
Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s chief homeless services coordinator, Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, and Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homelessness policy and outreach, back row left to right, listen as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall backs a call to add 300 additional emergency shelter beds to Salt Lake County’s homeless system during a press conference outside the City-County Building on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Coalition calls for action on housing

The mayor announced her support for the additional beds after the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness issued a call Tuesday for the community to support more affordable housing and at least 300 additional homeless overflow beds to better help Salt Lake County’s homeless population while also addressing concerns with those living on the streets.

“That’s what service providers say is needed to ensure that no one who wants to bed inside will be forced to camp outside,” Mendenhall said. “The city agrees with that conclusion.”

“The lack of affordable housing, the pandemic, and the lack of overflow beds has had a significant negative impact on those experiencing homelessness and the communities around them,” the coalition said in a statement on Tuesday. “We also understand the concerns of local business owners and residents and concur that individuals who are unsheltered in our community need safe places to move toward stability and self- sufficiency.”

The coalition added: “Further criminalizing the poor and burdening our criminal justice systems and jails cannot fill the gap in needed housing and shelter options.”

A woman opens a cooler as she walks around a homeless campsite.
A woman opens a cooler as she walks around a homeless campsite on the side of the street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Utah has released its annual homeless report. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

So the group called on private businesses, community members, cities, the county and state to support the creation of 450 permanent supportive housing units along with at least 300 emergency overflow beds, as well as operational funding “to address this immediate need.”

Mendenhall said the additional beds are needed so Salt Lake City can actually enforce its camping ordinance, which has been increasingly difficult as homeless encampments have grown more and more entrenched throughout the city.

“Without those beds being available Salt Lake City cannot begin to consistently enforce its camping and will continue to struggle to deal more directly with the very real issue we have of criminals attempting to exploit and prey upon homeless encampments,” Mendenhall said. “We will also continue to be unable to meet our goal of ensuring the public spaces stay clean, safe and accessible to everyone.”

Mendenhall also asked the state to support the city’s law enforcement efforts by increasing mitigation funding for communities that host homeless resource centers, and she proposed the state contribute funding to Salt Lake City’s downtown ambassador program.

If the state, county and other partners create all 300 beds, Mendenhall promised “the city will be able to begin more widespread and consistent enforcement of its camping ordinance.”

“That’s our commitment, but our commitment depends on our partners in the system to fulfill their roles, too,” she said.

Mendenhall’s announcement comes after $63 million in state and private dollars funded the creation of three new homeless resource centers meant to transform Salt Lake County’s system to be more housing and social services focused rather than one that warehouses people.

Capacity at resource centers has been a concern since the idea’s conception. Some homeless advocates worried they obviously wouldn’t be big enough to replace the Road Home’s more than 1,000-bed downtown shelter, which was shut down. But political leaders and other homeless advocates argued the new centers, combined with the existing 300-bed Midvale family shelter and increased “diversion efforts” (affordable housing, rental assistance, motel vouchers and efforts to place people with family first, not shelter) would decrease the burden on shelters.

Since the new homeless resource centers opened, however, “less affordable housing is available than anticipated,” the Salt Lake Valley Coalition said, and there is “no ability to flex within the facilities to meet the varying capacity requirements.”

Since their openings, the homeless resource centers have operated at or near capacity. They’ve consistently operated at an average of 90% capacity, according to the coalition.

“To address the unmet needs, the coalition supports efforts to develop additional housing units and has developed overflow plans that ensure there are enough beds for all of those seeking emergency shelter, particularly during the winter months,” the Salt Lake Valley Coalition said in Tuesday’s statement.

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State official agrees with mayor’s efforts

Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who now serves as Gov. Spencer Cox’s chief homeless services coordinator, stood alongside Mendenhall at the news conference Thursday. He said the state is a willing partner and ready to support local homeless organizations.

“The idea and plan that’s presented today, I think, is a very positive direction from the state’s point of view,” Niederhauser said. “And we’re going to do whatever we can to support getting more housing on the ground. But that involves probably getting with the Legislature and persuading them, and I think that’s part of the job and part of the reason why I’m in this position.”

Niederhauser also agreed the Salt Lake County system likely needs more “low-barrier shelter.”

“I would call our shelters more medium-barrier,” he said. “Having a low-barrier shelter actually might be a solution. Probably not a complete solution, but could be part of people that don’t want to come into shelter but want to be in a place that’s warm or cool.”

But the question remains: Where will the new beds go, and what will they look like?

Niederhauser indicated the answer might be the purchase of motels, a growing trend across the nation as struggling motel owners look to sell.

“The trend of the day is the motels,” Niederhauser said, “that have been vacant during COVID and we have owners who want to sell. They are very good options to get beds quickly. ... Statewide, by the way.”

Niederhauser said partners should be “focusing on that, at least for the near-term. Those shelters, they can be a shelter initially and turned into more permanent supportive housing but having that stock available to us will be very, very important.”