Robert Gehrke: Why not keep the Road Home open for a while to make sure Utah’s homeless don’t freeze to death

Robert Gehrke

There’s an approach to dieting we’ve probably all seen and maybe even tried: Go buy a pair of pants you like in a size too small and it’ll motivate you to lose weight so you can wear them.

It’s similar to the approach state homeless providers seemed to take when they were planning Utah’s new resource centers. To replace a network that could handle nearly 1,100 people, they built three resource centers that can accommodate 700.

The thinking was that they could “transform” the system, deploy case managers, get people sober or trained to get back on their feet, find them stable housing. It’s a good plan and it’s how you break the cycle of homelessness.

The problem is that people aren’t pants. Instead of a severe case of muffin-top if you can’t squeeze into your pants, when people are left on the streets in sub-zero temperatures they tend to freeze to death.

And already we’re seeing the shortcomings of the new system. As my colleagues Bethany Rodgers and Taylor Stevens first reported this week, a couple dozen women a night are already seeking refuge at the St. Vincent de Paul overflow shelter.

That poses a very real problem because we aren’t anywhere near peak demand yet. That will come once the snow starts falling and people are forced indoors.

This is why the shelters were supposed to open by July, so there would be time to test the new system and work out the bugs. But two of the shelters opened in just the past few weeks and the third — the South Salt Lake men’s shelter — likely won’t open until next month at the earliest.

Maybe it wouldn’t be as much of a problem, except that the new strategy hinges entirely on not simply giving people a roof over their head, but moving them from one step to the next with the end goal being finding them permanent housing.

And it’s not just the shelters that are behind schedule. About 200 transitional housing units were already supposed to be available, but they aren’t. Not only that, a state assisted housing program, which supported short-term housing for about 100 people, lapsed in July and was not renewed.

There was an anticipation that when the new resource centers first opened there would be a bottleneck as the new process got moving. But, kind of like jumping rock-to-rock across a stream, without the next rock to jump to, the logjam is going to be more severe.

There is a silver lining. The Department of Workforce Services says it’s a positive thing that more women are seeking refuge in the shelters, and it probably is. The knock on The Road Home shelter was that women didn’t go there because they didn’t feel safe.

The homeless population isn’t growing, so the fact that more women feel safe coming in from the cold means fewer women out on the streets — which is everyone’s goal.

The immediate problem remains: There are too many people, too little space and time is running out.

There is a budget of about $60,000 in vouchers to let people rent hotel rooms for the night, but homeless advocates say that’s a Band-aid and won’t last long during winter.

There’s a better solution.

The Road Home was initially supposed to close in June. That was pushed back to September as the opening of the new resource centers was delayed, then pushed back again to later this month. Given the delays in every other part of the grand plan, postponing the closure of the shelter and operating the property — which the state now owns — as the overflow shelter until March seems like a reasonable step.

It alleviates the overcrowding problem, means maybe some people won’t freeze in the streets and it provides a few more months to ramp up a system that, hopefully, will indeed transform how we serve Utah’s homeless population.