Shelter the Homeless replaces its executive director

The nonprofit that owns Salt Lake County’s three new homeless resource centers has announced it’s replacing its executive director.

Laurie Hopkins, the incoming executive director for Shelter the Homeless, has served in a variety of leadership roles in nonprofit groups over the past 15 years, most recently as executive director at Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum since 2015.

None of her prior experience appears to have involved homelessness issues.

Prior to running the children’s museum, she worked beginning in 2006 for the Sundance Institute — since January 2013, as co-managing director of Robert Redford’s nonprofit arts organization.

Her biography, posted on the Discovery Gateway site, doesn’t mention any prior work with people experiencing homelessness.

However, Jean Hill, who serves on the board of directors for Shelter the Homeless, said Hopkins is working to get caught up on the issues and will bringing critical fundraising skills to the nonprofit.

“I think there’ll be a learning curve, but the skills we need aren’t specific to homeless services,” Hill said.

The Shelter the Homeless release announcing the new appointment said little about why the nonprofit is replacing its current executive director, Preston Cochrane — simply thanking him and acknowledging his role in the opening of three new homeless shelters. The release states the nonprofit conducted an extensive search to find a new leader.

The Pioneer Park Coalition, a community organization that seeks to address issues related to homelessness in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, expressed gratitude for Cochrane’s contribution.

“I recognize Preston’s willingness as he took on the executive director role at a time of change when communication was very important," Dave Kelly, board chairman for the Pioneer Park Coalition, said in a prepared statement. "This was a difficult role to step into and Preston’s efforts are appreciated.”

Hill declined to comment on the reasons for Cochrane’s replacement but said he “did an amazing job in a very difficult situation.” She noted that he led the nonprofit as the organization was working to build the new resource centers and navigate a wholesale shift in the way the region provides homeless services. Instead of simply offering shelter, the new facilities — two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake — provide a full range of services designed to help people exit homelessness.

But the construction process was challenging, with several delays to the resource centers’ opening because of bad weather, disagreements with South Salt Lake leaders and funding shortfalls.

Cochrane, reached earlier in the week, said he was still employed with Shelter the Homeless but declined to offer any specifics about the changes. Leaders of the nonprofit said nothing about whether Cochrane was reassigned or left the organization altogether.

“As a homeless services system, we just experienced a seismic shift in how we deliver services,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who serves on the Shelter the Homeless executive board. “As we embark on this new chapter of serving those experiencing homelessness, we look forward to working alongside Laurie’s leadership to ensure this new system is working in the most efficient and effective way possible.”

According to Hopkins’ profile on the Discovery Gateway site, she oversaw a three-year, $1.5 million revitalization campaign at the museum.

“I recognize that the communitywide system serving individuals experiencing homelessness is full of dedicated and special people and I am pleased to join this group in supporting this very important cause with a strategic and people-oriented approach,” Hopkins said in a prepared statement.

The leadership change comes as the new homeless resource centers are contending with a series of challenges, including financial difficulties and the response to COVID-19.

The South Salt Lake men’s homeless resource center was turned into a quarantine facility late last week after two clients tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly within the 300-bed center. Of the 205 men tested, 94 have tested positive, Salt Lake County said Friday in a news release.

Those individuals have moved to a county quarantine facility, while those who have tested negative remain at the men’s resource center and are receiving health screenings twice a day.

“The nature of a congregant living facility like a Homeless Resource Center creates unique challenges in the effort to slow the spread of the virus,” the county said in the release. “Social distancing is one of the most effective methods for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but that is especially challenging in a building that houses 300 people.”

All three of the new resource centers in the Salt Lake City area are continuing to do daily screenings for COVID-19 and are focusing on cleaning techniques and hygiene processes to prevent further spread among the homeless population.

There are currently two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the unsheltered homeless population, a county spokeswoman confirmed on Friday.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.