Homeless advocates race to find emergency overflow beds in Salt Lake County before winter

Four potential sites are under consideration in three cities, advocates say.

The race is on once again to open up enough emergency shelter to keep people off Salt Lake County’s streets when it turns bitter cold, and advocates say they are eyeing four overflow location options.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is not yet identifying the three cities under consideration for temporary shelter sites, but co-chair Jean Hill said the group hopes to bolster the system’s capacity by mid-December at the latest.

The area faces an estimated deficit of about 250 to 275 beds this winter, even after counting hotel and motel vouchers and additional space that Catholic Community Services of Utah is offering in its downtown Salt Lake City dining hall, she said.

It is a problem the region has encountered for the past few years when the temperatures drop — and a cycle officials keep hoping to end.

“We’re all frustrated — not just the clients and the providers, but the cities, as well as the state,” Hill said. “I think we all recognize the need to have a solution that we can rely on from year to year until we get the housing capacity we need.”

To Bill Tibbitts, an anti-poverty advocate, the answer to the bed shortage could be as simple as seasonally lifting the strict capacity caps in place at the three homeless resource centers.

Because of these restrictions, the Salt Lake County resource centers can collectively shelter no more than 700 clients, Tibbitts said, but the buildings hypothetically could fit more people if policymakers allowed it.

With the approach of freezing weather, officials and service providers have waited too long to figure out a solution, he added.

“We’ve already had snow this year,” he said. “So it’s a bit late to be talking about how we can give people a place to sleep where they won’t get snowed on.”

The problem of winter bed shortages has dogged the Salt Lake Valley ever since 2019, when officials opened the three resource centers and closed the old emergency shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood. Two of the resource centers are in Salt Lake City, while the third is in South Salt Lake.

The Road Home shelter that operated on that site for decades had space for up to 1,062 people, or nearly 400 more than the resource centers are able to hold.

Catholic Community Services allows up to 58 people to sleep on mats at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall during the winter, Hill said, and providers have about 120 or 130 motel and hotel vouchers for women, families, people who have medical issues and others. That’s not enough to close the gap, though.

Hill says providers could pack more people into the resource centers as a last resort, but it is certainly not the best option during COVID-19.

“Folks who have medical issues, they can’t be in that congregate setting like that,” she said. “We’ve got to have places to put them that are safer, or they’re going to get incredibly sick, if not deathly ill.”

Salt Lake City offered overflow shelter at a former Deseret Industries building in Sugar House two years ago and last year at what was once the Airport Inn on North Temple. But officials in the capital city are frustrated, feeling it is shouldering too much of the responsibility for caring for people who are unsheltered.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People walk past the temporary overflow shelter in Sugarhouse with their belongings, Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mayor Erin Mendenhall wants other cities to step up. And she wants more help from the county and the state.

“Our city has and will continue to do our part, but in order to make real progress,” she said, “we need the willing formation of partnerships.”

She has been fighting a proposed permanent overflow shelter in what is now a detox center run by the Volunteers of America. But even if that project had gone forward, the facility would not have added more beds to the system this year and would not have been available until next winter at the earliest.

As part of that fight, she has put a six-month moratorium on any new permanent shelters, but Salt Lake City still would consider emergency overflow shelter options if someone comes forward with a proposal.

And Mendenhall has asked the City Council to set aside $1 million to help pay for the operations of an overflow shelter anywhere in Salt Lake County, intended as an incentive for another city to offer beds.

With the coalition looking at options in three cities, Mendenhall may get her way.

Tibbitts says the mayor’s position is both “understandable and disappointing.”

“It’s hard to tell other cities to not be saying not in my backyard,” he said, “when you’re saying not in our backyard.”

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homeless services coordinator, said he recognizes why Mendenhall believes Salt Lake City has already done its part to accommodate emergency shelters and wants other communities to do their part.

At the same time, he notes, the state’s largest city is the hub for homeless providers, and it is hard to find places that offer the same access to transportation networks and other services.

“So, yeah, it seems to be a little bit of a Catch-22 to spread the load,” he said, “but yet provide a system that’s going to work efficiently as possible and as effectively as possible.”

He long has argued that, ultimately, the solution depends on helping people exit the Salt Lake Valley’s three resource centers more quickly, freeing up beds for others. That will mean expanding services and the region’s stock of deeply affordable housing so there are fewer barriers to finding a way out of emergency shelter and into a stable living situation.

But the annual scramble for winter overflow space does consume time and energy that could be spent on some of these bigger-picture projects, Niederhauser said.

“There’s a lot of effort that’s been going on for several months now to address this overflow issue,” he said. “You’re going to focus more on other things, more productive things, if the system was running at what we call a more healthy situation — where people aren’t stacked up in the resource centers.”