Not even a week had passed before the newly operating microshelters in Salt Lake City had seen a success story.
One resident of the microshelters had been experiencing homelessness for 15 years and after staying in one of the units for a couple days, he was approved to go into housing.
“Because we were able able to take him out of that environment of really chaotic congregate overflow shelter and bring him into the micro, he felt like ‘OK, yeah, I’ll talk to you’ and (we) were able to qualify him and make sure anything that he was eligible for,” he got connected to, Switchpoint executive director Carol Hollowell said.
Switchpoint, Salt Lake City and the State Office of Homelessness collaborated to open the 50 microshelters in the city earlier this month, as part of Utah’s ongoing effort to reduce homelessness.
The first of its kind in Utah, the microshelters are individual dwellings equipped with heating, beds, outlets, air conditioning and lighting. The units are occupied by a single resident. This kind of shelter is designed to help people get into permanent housing.
Unlike other shelters, it’s not a large building with multiple beds: each resident has their own space. For some people experiencing homelessness, large congregate settings can be overwhelming and make it difficult for people to accept services, Hollowell explained.
It can be intimidating to try and get a spot in a shelter, Hollowell said. “Have you ever been around a whole bunch of people that are all clamoring for the same thing?” she asked. She emphasized that a person having their own space and being in a secure area where they can have privacy and downtime can help them to accept services when they are offered to them.
“When they’ve got their own space, we see a much better result of them accepting medical assistance, getting a state ID and finding more permanent housing,” Hollowell said.
“The microshelter community, designed for non-congregate living, offers immediate relief to unsheltered individuals currently residing on the streets of Salt Lake City,” Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator, said. “Our goal is stabilization, ensuring not only a secure and safe environment but also providing individuals with a sense of security for themselves and their personal belongings.”
According to Hollowell, the microshelters are geared toward helping people experiencing homelessness who may have become “shelter-resistant.” To find this population, she said they did outreach on the streets and received referrals of people not connected to another homeless resource center to fill the 50 microshelters.
Hollowell said the goal is “stabilize (people) through the winter in a microshelter and then get (them) ready to get into housing.”
This stability can be critical for helping people get the kinds of services they need to transition to permanent housing.
Without a stable place to live, many microshelter residents have not had a mailing address, which in turn, can impact the services they receive. In some cases, individuals have had their food stamp cards stolen or they cannot receive their disability check without an address, Hollowell explained. The combination of circumstances like these can be overwhelming to residents.
“I think it really speaks volumes if we’re able to sit down with somebody one on one. The shelters and the resource centers are trying to do that as well, but this is a smaller number. Fifty is not overwhelming to where you can say this is what we’re working on today and let’s see what we can tackle for you,” Hollowell said.
The microshelters are one part of the solution, Hollowell said, but not the whole solution. “I think that the important aspect is one size doesn’t fit all. And we’re trying to figure out how to solve homelessness in a lot of different ways. Some of that is through resource centers, some of that is through this approach of a microshelter.”
In addition to the shelters and resource centers, Hollowell said there needs to be a focus on making more deeply affordable houses.
“To me, the biggest way to prevent homelessness is allowing people to continue to pay rent without worrying that their rent is going up another $100 every six months or every year,” she said. “And, to me, we’re in a crisis — a rental crisis where people can’t afford rent.”
One of the challenges with deeply affordable housing is being able to pay off a mortgage on a building while renting out units at an affordable rate. “For Switchpoint, we’ve been able to apply for state dollars, whether it’s out of the Office of Homeland Services of through the GOPB (Governor’s Office of Panning and Budget) and be able to pay cash for those buildings. And then, we don’t have to worry about raising rent because we’re not trying to meet a mortgage that has to fluctuate based on interest rates,” Hollowell explained.
There are common misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness that Hollowell said are not true in her experience.
“I think that there’s a huge misconception that homeless (people) brought this on themselves,” Hollowell said. She spoke about a man whom she met around two months ago who was camping on the island by the Rio Grande.
Hollowell said she got talking to him and discovered that he was unable to afford rent and became homeless. She asked him if he would be willing to work and wanted to move into housing that same day.
After getting him set up for an interview at a convenience store, Hollowell said he was hired and soon promoted to night manager.
“There’s this misconception that they don’t want to improve their lives,” Hollowell said. “And the majority I find want to improve and they just need help.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has praised the efforts of Switchpoint. “Partnership, compassion, and deliberate organization of the temporary microshelter community are establishing an important model of shelter services that can support individuals in communities across the state,” she said. “I am grateful for Switchpoint and the State Office of Homeless Services for their commitment and dedication to collaborating on this program.”
While the microshelters are new to Utah, they aren’t new to the West. In Reno, Nevada, a similar approach to reducing homelessness has been taken, and the city has seen some success.
In the Nevada Cares Campus, there are 50 single units called ModPods in a community known as Safe Camp. Similar to the microshelters, ModPods are equipped with heating and cooling, and the community was designed with the goal of helping people work toward permanent housing, the Reno Gazette Journal reported.
Dennis Eaton described himself as a “senior citizen with disabilities” who used to operate heavy equipment. He told the Reno Gazette Journal that he had never been out on the streets until his rent more than doubled and he had to leave his home.
While Eaton had concerns of coming to the Safe Camp, he said “within an hour of being here, all those worries were gone.”
“I was amazed at how nicely they’re treating us here and how well they equipped it. I couldn’t have asked for more. I really couldn’t,” Eaton told the Reno Gazette Journal. Eaton has a goal to find a permanent housing situation.
In addition to the ModPods, there is a giant tent on the campus where people can sleep.
Some, like Jorge Ramirez-More, have been able to find employment and rent a room in an apartment complex after staying in the Nevada Cares Campus. Ramirez-More, who struggled with substance abuse and is an ex-convict, told The Wall Street Journal that workers at the complex helped him find a job.
“It’s like having someone on your side helping you in the most difficult time of your life,” Ramirez-More said. “They even provide rides to jobs, bus passes.”
Since Washoe County built the campus, “the number of homeless living on the street has plummeted to 329 this year from 780, according to annual point-in-time counts,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
This model has faced criticism, in particular, for the tent area. “I think they are just warehousing people,” Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark told The Wall Street Journal, explaining that he did not believe the tent shelter could work long term.
What’s next in Utah’s plan to combat homelessness?
As operations at the microshelters are underway, Utah has other initiatives to combat homelessness planned for the coming years.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox introduced a $186 million plan to combat homelessness in his proposed budget for the 2025 fiscal year. The plan includes funding for deeply affordable housing and emergency shelters and additional money to employ behavioral health care workers.
“The fact is that the system for getting help is complicated, and those in crisis need navigators to guide them on the road to recovery and housing,” Cox said at a press conference.
In addition to the governor’s efforts to combat homelessness, The Other Side Academy is in the process of building a 54-unit tiny home village to house those who are chronically homeless. There will be staff in the community who will help provide services to the residents.
The Other Side Village is modeled after a tiny home village in Austin, Texas, called the Community First! Village.
People who have experienced homelessness for at least one year or repeatedly and who have struggles with addiction, mental health or physical disabilities will be eligible to live in the village.
Joseph Grenny, chairman for the board of The Other Side Academy and The Other Side Village, said that the neighboring communities’ “political profile and social profile will be elevated significantly because this will be a destination spot for people that are visiting Utah, that will be fascinated by how Utah addresses problems like homelessness, and it will also be a just a gem to look at.”
“So we expect there’s going to be a tremendous welcome for those who understand what’s coming to the neighborhood,” Grenny said.