The Utah Department of Workforce Services says it’s tracking overnight stays at the downtown homeless shelter during the ongoing police-led operation to clear criminals from the area. It just wasn’t able to provide the correct information when asked until this week.
The state’s lead agency supporting Operation Rio Grande, a two-year effort to improve homeless services, last week was unable to provide accurate information that would show what effect the heavy police presence had on the use of The Road Home’s shelter.
The Department of Workforce Services (DWS) provided The Salt Lake Tribune with information indicating that shelter stays after the operation’s Aug. 14 launch had significantly and almost immediately increased, compared with the same 11 weeks in 2016. The data appeared to further confirm reports that conditions and safety had quickly improved and that the people who needed to stay in the shelter weren’t deterred from doing so.
In short, the numbers seemed to show that Operation Rio Grande was achieving oft-stated goals of ending rampant drug trafficking and lawlessness, and restoring a sense of normalcy to the neighborhood.
But the agency provided incorrect information that included families that are sleeping in motels in the valley, using vouchers provided by the shelter.
State officials said they needed to launch the police-led effort in August, before some pieces were in place, to improve access to homelessness services. But it took the DWS a week to verify data it says now accurately show that every night in the first month of the operation, fewer people stayed at The Road Home, compared with the same nights in 2016.
Since Sept. 15, however, those numbers rebounded and there have been 5 percent more overnight stays at the shelter through Oct. 31, compared with the period last year. Overall, including the initial drop, there were 0.9 percent more overnight stays this year than the same nights last year.
For some who are closely watching the effects of the operation, any decline in the use of services may have been troubling.
“That’s what we’ve been listening for,” said Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center. “Stories from people who felt they could no longer sleep in the shelter, or people who felt they couldn’t go to [Saint Vincent de Paul dining hall] for lunch anymore.”
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, said he sees changes in overnight stays all the time. He said the shelter has seen slightly more single women use the facility during Operation Rio Grande.
Nate McDonald, a DWS spokesman, said the agency “mistakenly included hotel/motel vouchers and one query that included families” that initially inflated the number of stays. The DWS has received weekly reports from The Road Home, he said, and other updates have been accurate.
McDonald said the state will begin tracking average length of stay at the shelter and the number of people who leave the shelter and obtain housing.
“Since last week, the department has refined its searching methods to better track and align the reports with The Road Home so the most accurate number is reported,” McDonald said.