Salt Lake Valley’s homeless shelter system holding strong as winter weather drives surge in demand

Providers are better prepared to help this season.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A tent in front of a closed furniture store on Salt Lake City's State Street, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

Persistent snowfall and frigid temperatures have caused a spike in demand for shelter space in the Salt Lake Valley, but state and local leaders say the region has offered enough beds to keep residents off the streets if they’d rather be indoors.

Of the roughly 1,000 beds available across a network of shelters for unhoused Utahns, about 100 were unoccupied on average in the reporting week that ended Tuesday.

“If there’s a big surge, there’s going to be a struggle in meeting all that demand,” state homelessness czar Wayne Niederhauser said. “But so far, we’ve not had any night where we’ve had more demand than supply.”

Even so, the perils of the streets resurfaced early Friday when police reported finding a person dead at a small encampment west of Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Depot. Officials said they did not know the person’s name, age, gender or cause of death.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area behind Rio Grande Depot, 500 W. 300 South, where Utahns experiencing homelessness live in makeshift tents and shelters, Dec. 16, 2022.

To stave off the threat of not having enough shelter space, Niederhauser and other officials meet weekly to discuss how to adapt the regional response to homelessness in the coldest months, and what to do if a surge suddenly strikes.

This week, amid relentless snowstorms, homeless resource centers began operating their winter overflow beds around the clock instead of strictly overnight.

Volunteers of America has expanded the number of beds at its youth shelter and has employed an all-hands-on-deck outreach effort to help unsheltered residents.

Niederhauser said this year’s shelter system response is an improvement from past efforts because the extra beds were available sooner.

“We are so much further ahead this year than we were last year,” he said, “or the year before.”

The state forced local leaders to come up with a plan for a winter overflow shelter by September. Because of that mandate, the temporary Millcreek shelter, which can serve up to 100 people, is open, has beds available, and has been operating for weeks. Last year, a temporary winter shelter was not available until January.

Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homeless policy and outreach, said planning for the winter response has been months in the making.

And the overflow system, he said, is working as it’s supposed to, even as staffing hiccups have created some limitations.

“Everyone’s working really hard,” he said, “to make sure we’ve got enough resources.”

Stepping up outreach

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area behind Rio Grande Depot, 500 W. 300 South, where Utahns experiencing homelessness live in makeshift tents and shelters, Dec. 16, 2022.

One of those people is Amanda Christensen, who oversees outreach efforts for Volunteers of America, Utah.

Christensen said VOA workers are letting unsheltered residents know how to access overflow beds and the general shelter system, figuring out what supplies they need, checking for problems with frostbite, educating them about keeping their extremities dry, and letting them know which indoor places are available during the day.

She said her team is using workers from across the organization to help Utahns who are sleeping outside.

“Right now, because this is an emergent need,” she said, “wherever we have capacity, we’re pulling all staff to do outreach.”

The organization’s youth resource center, meanwhile, expanded its capacity from 30 beds to 50 after Salt Lake City granted the center temporary permission to do so.

That expanded program is already being put to use, according to Dani Nives, who oversees the youth center. She said 34 unsheltered youths stayed Wednesday night at the resource center near 900 South and 400 West.

“Our outreach teams are working with youth that have historically wanted to stay in tents to say, ‘Hey, there’s more beds, please come inside,’” Nives said, “and getting the word out.”

Where do unsheltered families go?

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, acknowledged this year’s winter response has been an improvement but said officials face a new challenge: a crush of families seeking shelter.

The overflow beds that are available are open only to single adults, not families.

“We’re in a better spot,” he said, “but we weren’t worried about families with kids because we hadn’t had an issue. There weren’t families with kids that were turned away last winter.”

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said the Midvale Family Resource Center her organization runs is operating at capacity.

Still, she said, The Road Home won’t turn away families if they’re unsheltered and need a place to stay, even if it means allowing them to sleep in the shelter’s day room until a better option is available.

“If a family calls and they want to come in but they have a place they can stay at least for a day or two, we have told people we can’t bring them in yet,” Flynn said. “But if a family is unsheltered and is willing to come in, we will absolutely find a place for them that day.”

The state has given The Road Home $400,000 for motel vouchers and is looking to expand the voucher program with another provider.

Eliminating the need for overflow?

Salt Lake City hopes to erase the need for winter overflow shelters altogether by expediting the construction of permanent supportive housing.

This week, the City Council approved an infusion of $6 million into three projects that would help keep more than 450 people off the streets. Most of those beds are expected to be available by the time the winter shelter closes.

In addition, the city’s planning commission gave the nod to a proposal that would allow homeless shelters in most areas of Utah’s capital, a move aimed at creating a more equitable distribution of social services.

The City Council has until May to adopt the measure.