COVID-19 forces reduction, temporary closure of some homeless services in Salt Lake County, new data shows

COVID-19 continues to have far-reaching impacts on Salt Lake County’s homeless population and the providers who serve them, according to new data presented Wednesday to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

About 16% of organizations surveyed as part of a service gap analysis conducted by the Utah Foundation, a research and analysis firm, say they have reduced services to this vulnerable population during the pandemic, while 2% percent say they’ve temporarily shut down.

Meanwhile, about a quarter of the 79 respondents have moved resources online, while 28% report no changes. Another quarter said they were either cutting their offerings or keeping them the same but had increased the availability of online components as a result of the virus, according to Jesus Valero, who presented the findings during a virtual coalition meeting Wednesday.

The survey, which comes three months after the first positive coronavirus case in Utah, also provides a snapshot of how the pandemic has affected the survivability of these homeless service providers — the majority of which are nonprofit organizations — as the state’s economy has tumbled due to closures meant to stem its spread.

A third of providers indicated that the virus had threatened their continued operations “somewhat,” while 14% indicated that was true to a “great extent.” Another third said their continued operations were impacted “very little” and 20% said they hadn’t seen an effect at all.

To diminish the consequences of COVID-19 on their ability to offer resources, service providers report that they have taken a number of steps — including assessing their expenses and making cuts where feasible, suspending volunteer programs and pursuing new funding sources.

“Organizations are really thinking holistically and broadly in terms of what they can do to mitigate the impact,” Valero said.

The biggest challenge the organizations say they have faced in managing the pandemic is protecting the health and safety of their staffs, followed by a reduction or loss of financial resources and an increased demand for services. They also listed difficulties maintaining morale and motivation among employees and the reduction or loss in available volunteers.

The pandemic has also presented challenges specifically for the Salt Lake City area’s new homeless resource system.

Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, reported Wednesday that a new organization will not be ready to step in and run the 200-bed men’s and women’s resource center in Salt Lake City on July 1. That’s when its contract with Catholic Community Services, which operates the Gail Miller shelter, will expire.

Hopkins said Shelter the Homeless, which owns the three resource centers, is in the last stages of securing and finalizing a contract with an “experienced nonprofit organization” — but she anticipates the new provider won’t be in place until September.

“All of this work is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s elongated the time needed for us to prepare the transition to the selected operator,” she said.

In the meantime, Hopkins said Shelter the Homeless will oversee operations at the resource center, with the goal of bringing on experienced staff from Catholic Community Services to help during the transition.

“This team is going to work diligently to ensure that all of the needed operations will continue throughout the summer until the new operator can assume administration of the center,” she said.

Hopkins took over as executive director of Shelter the Homeless this spring, filling a position previously held by Preston Cochrane, who is now the director of operations at Valley Behavioral Health.

People experiencing homelessness have faced particular challenges during the pandemic, since it’s difficult to social distance in shelters or in encampments, which also often have limited access to hygiene services. Many people on the streets also have preexisting conditions that can put them at particular risk for negative or deadly impacts as a result of the virus.

To date, a few more than 220 members of the county’s homeless population have tested positive for the coronavirus — though 218 of those are considered “recovered,” (meaning it’s been at least three weeks since their diagnosis and they’re still alive), while only four cases are active.

Homeless diagnoses represent 3.6% of all positives in Salt Lake County overall, but at 7.1% make up a much higher percentage of the total number of people who have been hospitalized, according to data presented to the coalition Wednesday.

Testing has been “one of the focuses” of the coronavirus response in this community said David Litvack, a senior policy adviser in Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration. So far, he said, more than 1,300 tests have been administered among Salt Lake County’s homeless population.

Litvack said the county, in conjunction with homeless service providers, will begin a new testing strategy as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus. Starting next week, the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides medical services for people experiencing homelessness, will begin using a mobile medical clinic to visit each of the three resource centers once a week to test symptomatic and asymptomatic people. Testing will be offered at the family shelter in Midvale once a month.

The Fourth Street Clinic and Volunteers of America Utah, which operates one of the three resource centers, are also working on strategies to test the unsheltered homeless, including at the Weigand homeless day center, Litvack said.

Despite the many challenges the virus has presented for homeless service providers, Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and a government liaison with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, praised the collaborative efforts that have gone into protecting the population so far.

“It’s amazing, really, that our homeless population numbers are so low with COVID-19” compared to other states, she said. “And that really is a testament to the city and county and all of those partners doing some amazing, amazing work.”