5 deaths in SLC’s frigid outdoors prompt an emergency action to expand homeless shelters

Move comes as cities, state step up their response to the snow and cold gripping northern Utah, making life on the street more perilous.

After a cold snap that officials suspect contributed to the deaths of five unsheltered residents in recent days, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an emergency order Tuesday that will expand shelter space in Utah’s capital.

“It’s our hope that by enabling this additional capacity,” Mendenhall said, “the operators of each of the shelters will be able to offer the space that our countywide system needs now in order to guarantee the availability of a bed for anyone seeking shelter.”

The mayor’s order, which lasts for 30 days, comes less than a week after officials said they still had space in the region’s network of shelters. Between Dec. 7 and 13, about 10% of the beds in the shelter system were unoccupied.

“I felt pretty confident,” Utah’s homelessness coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, told reporters Tuesday. “The state was leading that charge by statute, and then that confidence has been shattered over the last week with the amount of people that are accessing shelter, even though we’ve provided more beds than we ever have, and earlier than we ever have before.”

Now, Niederhauser said, the system is virtually at capacity, with only the temporary shelter in Millcreek having beds available.

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood are poised to add shelter space in their cities as well. South Salt Lake is home to the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center.

The additional beds will come by expanding offerings at the three homeless resource centers and the temporary Millcreek shelter. All told, another 95 beds will be available across the system, upping the overall total to about 1,100 beds.

Salt Lake City police said Tuesday the five people who died were found between Dec. 12 and Monday. The medical examiner’s office still needs to determine the causes of death, but Mendenhall said it is reasonable to assume exposure to wintry weather was a factor.

Volunteers and members of downtown’s First United Methodist Church banded together between Thursday and Sunday to provide a warm place indoors for residents experiencing homelessness, offering an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. “overnight movie night” at the historic meetinghouse.

Mendenhall said those efforts contributed to keeping about 80 Utahns out of the cold. “Our community’s commitment to this issue is unwavering,” she said, “and I’m grateful for it.”

Policymakers are unsure how long it will be before all of the additional beds come on line, but Niederhauser cautioned that it will take time due to staffing issues. Persistent staffing challenges already have hindered the region’s winter response to homelessness.

The overflow beds that are already offered at the three homeless resource centers were always planned to be open 24/7. They became available around the clock Dec. 12.

At the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center in Salt Lake City, 25 of the 50 allowable overflow beds were open by last week. Mendenhall’s executive order ups the number of allowable beds to 75.

A spokesperson for Volunteers of America, Utah — the operators of the women’s resource center — said overflow capacity at that facility will increase to 30 beds next week. If the facility does hit capacity, workers will help unsheltered residents find another place to stay.

The mayor said the two resource centers in Salt Lake City now have the legal ability to house more people indoors, but it will be up to service providers to determine the staffing levels needed to do that safely.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said in a statement that her organization works diligently to ensure it provides a safe, warm place for Utahns experiencing homelessness to stay.

The Road Home operates the Gail Miller Resource Center in Salt Lake City and Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake.

“Our teams are striving to support additional capacity and appreciate the efforts of all of our partners to meet this need,” Flynn said. “We will work with local fire marshals to ensure we expand in a safe manner, and we support our front-line workers and will increase capacity up to the limits of our staffing and resources.”

State funding is in place to pay for additional staffing and transportation needs.

Niederhauser said officials are shifting how they transport unsheltered residents to Millcreek’s overflow shelter, which still has about 20 of its 100 beds available. He said the transportation plan will transition from using buses to vans, and will double the frequency of trips to and from the shelter.

“We’ll see that much improved,” he said, “over the next week.”

State and local officials meet weekly to discuss what adjustments they need to make to the shelter network.

Officials with Volunteers of America, Utah, are pulling workers from across the organization to help with outreach efforts amid snowstorms and freezing temperatures. VOA workers are educating unsheltered residents about options for overflow beds, determining what supplies they need, checking for issues with frostbite, and letting them know where they can stay warm during the day.