Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.
Moab • If not for Moab’s booming tourism industry, longtime community radio DJ “NewClear” Ned Robinson thinks he’d probably still be living in the mobile home he called his own for so many years.
He was renting it to own, from a “really nice guy” who “cared about people.” But the person who bought the land next?
“What they really cared about was the dirt,” Robinson said.
The new landowner ended up turning the plot into an overnight RV park, catering to the thousands of tourists who visit the southeastern Utah community each year to recreate in its nearby national parks — but leaving Robinson with nowhere to live except his 1991 Lincoln town car.
“There wasn’t anything available when I got evicted out of there,” he recounted during a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “What am I going to do, throw $3,000 a month into a house here in Moab?”
With a lack of housing in reach for the community’s most vulnerable, service providers say it’s become more difficult to temporarily move unsheltered people out of the elements and to get them off the streets for good.
“We do have to explain [to our homeless clients] that, ‘We can help you get on these waiting lists, but it could be a year; it could be two years,’” said Liz Donkersloot, housing resource coordinator with the Moab Multicultural Center. “‘It could be a couple of months, but it’s not as likely.’”
It’s hard to get a sense of the size of homelessness in Moab, since the annual census of unsheltered individuals is taken in the winter, when the city’s transient population is at its smallest. But based on preliminary numbers for this year’s Point in Time Count, volunteers found about 30 people experiencing homelessness in Grand County in January. Eighteen met the federal definition of homeless, up from 12 the year before.
Jim Winder, Moab’s former police chief, said this growing population is in sore need of mental health and addiction services. Law enforcement is at a loss when trying to assist chronically homeless individuals, he said, adding that during his tenure, even the jails didn’t want to admit them.
“These people are living in the weeds,” said Winder. “And are suffering mightily because there’s just nowhere else to go.”
Many times, family members of people with the most acute mental health or substance abuse issues are driving their relatives north for treatment, he said.
“The problem with Grand County is the same with our country: The so-called social safety net has absolutely disappeared,” he said. “It’s most obvious and chronic in communities like Grand County.”
‘We don’t have enough apartments’
Back in 2008, before visitation to Moab skyrocketed, it was relatively easy to get people experiencing homelessness into housing if they wanted it, said Sara Melnicoff, who works with the unsheltered population through her nonprofit, Moab Solutions.
“But now that’s impossible here,” she said, blaming a lack of housing on units that were previously available to the community but were turned into Airbnb rentals “when the tourist boom started.”
While many Utah communities are struggling with a dearth of affordable housing, officials say some elements of Moab’s crisis are unique — such as those short-term rentals, and the high number of dwellings bought as second homes.
“We don’t have enough apartments,” said Ben Riley, executive director of the Southeastern Utah Housing Authority. “The way people find housing is they either get a subsidized unit somewhere that we’ve built or someone else has built; there’s a few complexes around. But there are very small amounts of market rate, one-, two- or three-bedroom rentals. That’s the real crux.”
Riley estimates there’s a 99% occupancy rate for the rentals that are available. And he said the waiting list for subsidized housing through the federal government in Grand County is about two years long.
Service providers say they know firsthand that there are people experiencing homelessness in the area who want to get into housing but have instead been directed to Salt Lake City or St. George, where there are more resources, Donkersloot said.
And while Moab Multicultural often works with people who have become homeless or are at risk of losing their housing because of substance abuse or mental health issues, Donkersloot said there also are many families who are couch surfing in the city after falling on hard times, because of a job loss or something else.
“Recently we’ve had a couple of families who even had the money; they’re willing to pay market rates and they just couldn’t find the housing, and for whatever reason they had to be out of their previous living situation,” she noted.
Without a homeless shelter in the Grand County area, service providers and homeless advocates have few options for helping people get out of the blistering heat and the bitter cold.
Melnicoff said she petitioned the city of Moab at one point to open up its gym as an emergency overflow space during the winter. Officials gave the idea a thumbs up, but she said there were too many barriers around accessibility for people with disabilities to bring the idea to fruition.
Instead, she and the Moab Multicultural Center sometimes pay for a motel or hotel stay to get people off the streets for a few nights, especially during the cold winter months.
That’s gotten more difficult, though, as skyrocketing tourism has led to a simultaneous spike in the nightly price for a hotel or motel room.
“At one time in Moab, we had motels in the winter [that] would often allow the homeless to stay there for very little money,” said Grand County Commissioner Mary McGann. “But because more of the mom and pop motels have left and been replaced with chains, they’re not as flexible, nor as concerned about the community.”
Moab Multicultural Center has a fund that it can spend on motel and hotel nights, but it’s limited. This year, Donkersloot said, the agency has about $4,300 set aside for that purpose — funding that can go fast when overnight accommodations are at their highest, around $300 or $400 a night.
“Typically we try and allot about $300 per individual in need,” she noted. “That could give someone one night [in the peak summer tourism season], or in the winter that could get them a couple of weeks.”
The center also has permission to use its state funds to provide people with camping gear — like tents, sleeping bags, stoves and cookware — or buy them a night at a campsite. Camping is prohibited in Moab, so the agency encourages people to pitch a tent on Bureau of Land Management property rather than within city limits.
Moab Solutions also helps people get into a motel or hotel some nights, through an emergency fund Melnicoff raises money for from the community each year.
One of the beneficiaries of that fund was Carey Jones, who is now in housing in Moab after spending the last 30 years or so on and off the streets. The 66-year-old artist credits Melnicoff with saving his life on a number of occasions.
His last stint of nearly six months in a motel — some of it paid by Moab Solutions, and the rest covered by a charitable property owner — made all the difference in getting him off the streets, he said.
“That allowed me to get stable enough, because winters just tear you down,” he said. “It takes you half a summer to recover from that. So from that, I went right into housing.”
Looking for solutions
Advocates are exploring the possibility of creating a safe parking program for the homeless, or a facility with emergency shelter beds that aren’t at the mercy of the free market.
The challenges for either option are the same: finding open land or a willing property owner.
Donkersloot said she thinks there are “definitely enough people” who are camping in their car and would take advantage of a parking lot — but she doesn’t know “where they would even be able to do that in town.”
Melnicoff said Moab Solutions is looking at the possibility of buying a building about to be vacated by Interact Clubhouse, a substance abuse treatment center, to create a “crisis resource center” there for people experiencing homelessness. While that plan is still in its early phases, she envisions a place where people could spend the day and get out of the elements, receive warm meals, safeguard their belongings in lockers and in dire circumstances, spend the night.
More than anything, she said, Melnicoff wants people to “have access to an environment that might nurture their desire to make a change.”
Local officials also want greater freedom to tap into their tourism success for the benefit of Moab residents. Utah’s hotel and motel tax generates about $5 million a year for Grand County and $4 million for Moab, but the bulk of that revenue must get plowed back into tourism — even though many locals argue their community is already maxed out.
“I think that money going towards mitigating the impact of tourism in town in so many ways would be very useful,” Commissioner Jacques Hadler said, adding that the state has started to ease restrictions on the funding. “But that could still go further.”
Most local service providers and officials agree that the community can’t stand alone in solving some of these persistent problems and needs state funding and support.
Winder, who was Salt Lake County’s sheriff at the launch of the $67 million Operation Rio Grande homeless campaign in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park area, said Utah officials tend to focus on addressing homelessness on a large scale. He argues they should instead turn attention to smaller communities, like Moab.
“They always want to put their arms around the gigantic issue ... to come up with these very complex solutions,” he said. “Instead of saying, let’s take a proof of concept on a micro basis and then expand success.”
Trying to ‘catch up’
Many people agree that affordable housing is the ultimate answer to helping Moab’s unsheltered community. The Southeastern Utah Housing Authority, for example, has been working to bring several new affordable units on line in coming years, which is expected to ease pressure on the community.
“There’s been a lot of action, I feel, but development takes time,” Riley noted. “We’re hoping to be able to catch up within the next two or three years and at least make a dent with the issues we’ve seen.”
And some Moab business owners are realizing that if they want their employees to have housing, they might have to provide it themselves. Kirstin Peterson, co-owner of Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventure, said she acquired a plot of land where she hopes to build duplexes for her employees and other local workers.
”I’ve got lots of friends that are business owners or manage businesses,” she said. “Everyone is in the same boat.”
Still, affordable housing likely won’t be a fix for everyone. Robinson, for example, was able to get into an affordable unit in Moab and spent about a year there, but it ultimately “didn’t work out.” He felt there were too many rules, including prohibitions against smoking cigarettes inside the apartment.
Now, he said, he’s “done with Moab” and isn’t looking for housing. Instead, he’s planning a move to Panama, where he was born, and envisions spending his days eating guacamole and drinking “cervezas.”
And his reasons for leaving echo the concerns other longtime locals have raised about how their community is changing.
“Why do I want to live in a place that is this busy?” Robinson said. “It’s almost as bad as a major city. It has more noise because of all the RZRs running around here off road. And the cost of living here has increased. It’s terrible. … Why hassle with it?”
Correction • Tuesday, 11:51 a.m.: An earlier version of this story contained an outdated job title for Jim Winder.