Tinier than tiny houses: Utah’s latest tool against homelessness may be sheds

The proposal would create a new shelter option for unhoused Utahns.

(Todd Beltz | Pallet Shelter) A village of mini-shelters in Boston.

A village of tiny houses is already on its way to the Wasatch Front, and now a village of even tinier shelters may be right behind it.

State officials are pursuing a new shelter option for Utahns experiencing homelessness that would offer each resident space in a shedlike structure to stay off the streets.

“Everybody understands,” state Homelessness Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said, “that this is a gap.”

The initiative, part of Utah’s recently drafted plan to reduce homelessness, is a modification of the legal homeless camp that has been promoted by two Salt Lake City Council members who represent the capital’s west side.

Instead of residents occupying tents — like they would at a sanctioned camp — they would live in more permanent spaces as small as 64 square feet.

“It’s just much cleaner (and) it’s much safer,” Niederhauser said, “if we use mini-shelters versus tents.”

The sheds, which aim to make accessing shelter easier, are smaller than the tiny homes that will occupy the west-side village council members approved in October.

That project, The Other Side Village, will be built in phases on eight city-owned acres west of Redwood Road between Indiana Avenue and 500 South, with a pilot phase of 54 deeply affordable tiny homes to serve chronically homeless Utahns. The rental units will be about 280 to 400 square feet and include a bed, bathroom, small kitchen and living area.

Niederhauser said challenges from a new state law that mandated earlier planning for winter overflow shelter options motivated him to seek a long-term solution in an effort to create a safe place for Utahns in the coldest months.

The state leader visited mini-shelter villages in Texas and saw that they work to help those who live on the streets.

What’s the plan for the village of mini-shelters?

(Pallet Shelter) Shelters in the proposed village would be about 64 square feet. Each shelter could house a single resident or couple.

Niederhauser said the shelters would measure about 8 feet by 8 feet, could be heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, and offer a place for residents to safely lock up their belongings.

And if lawmakers open up state coffers beyond what is already requested in Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget, Niederhauser believes he can get a village open by next winter, giving Utahns experiencing homelessness another option to stay safe in frigid temperatures.

Niederhauser said he’s been working with the governor and legislative leaders, who have been receptive to his pitch.

He estimates the village would cost between $9 million and $11 million a year to run. That price tag would cover staffing, services, security and meals for residents. Many mental health and addiction treatment expenses, he said, could be covered by Medicaid.

The total number of people the village could help has yet to be determined, but Niederhauser wants to start by providing about 100 mini-shelters. He also envisions building an on-site community support facility that could house hundreds of overflow beds in winter emergencies.

“But I’d like to have at least a place where we could flex 400 or 500 beds in the winter,” he said, “so we have plenty of capacity.”

He hopes that by creating such a space, Utah would be able to avoid the types of tragedies that have struck recently, with unsheltered residents dying on the streets.

The mini-shelters would serve single residents and couples. They also would be open to pets, Niederhauser said, as long as residents follow some basic rules.

“We’re not going to have a lot of rules, or strict rules, but enough to maintain order and cleanliness for the facility,” he said. “Everybody will function better if there’s order and cleanliness.”

Residents will have access to their mini-shelters around the clock, all year long. Although Niederhauser doesn’t envision the village as a permanent living arrangement, residents won’t be kicked out as they stabilize their lives.

“But we’d like to get them moving along the continuum and into a more permanent housing situation,” he said, “which requires services and assistance and some case management.”

Proposal receives warm reception

(Todd Beltz | Pallet Shelter) A village of mini-shelters in Boston.

Wendy Garvin, president and executive director of Unsheltered Utah, lauded the plan, saying it fills a need while providing safer shelter than tents can offer.

“People in tents are at risk, even if they’re really good tents,” she said. “These are not the nights we want people outside at all.”

Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro-Eschler, a vocal proponent of creating legalized campgrounds, called Niederhauser’s proposal “brilliant.”

And while the long-term fix to homelessness is creating more housing and increasing access to services, the west-side council member said, a village of mini-shelters would relieve some of the burden on her constituents.

“My community lives in the throes of a crisis every day, and there’s very little relief for that short-term crisis while we build out the affordable housing that we need,” she said. “So I’m thrilled that this is on the table and that it’s in discussion.”

Where would the village go?

(Pallet Shelter) A village of mini-shelters in Santa Rosa, California.

The big outstanding question, Niederhauser said, is where his village of mini-shelters would be built.

He said he is looking for a minimum of 20 acres and is looking all over for potential sites.

“I don’t have a specific location,” he said, “that I’m focused on.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Utah’s support systems for unhoused residents needs a low-barrier shelter option and winter overflow options that provide a reliable place for beds. But she has concerns that hosting a facility would place additional burdens on Utah’s capital.

“If that were in Salt Lake City,” she said, “the category that would shift our city’s need for support and mode of services is so far beyond any other city in the state.”

That, the mayor added, “would require, likewise, a new level of support in an ongoing way from our state partners — and that’s not a conversation that we have had yet.”

To prevent more unsheltered residents being sent here from other states and parts of Utah, she said, she would want existing residents who sleep on the streets of Salt Lake City to have the first opportunity to receive help.

“We would have to have a priority access system that doesn’t exist today,” Mendenhall said, “if the Legislature and state leadership want to see the conditions on the capital city’s streets improve.”

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