Some Salt Lake City leaders are worried it would be ‘unreasonable’ to close the downtown homeless shelter as planned

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande street in Salt Lake City is pictured here on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. The shelter is slated to close in June 2019, but Salt Lake City Council Chair Erin Mendenhall raised concerns at the council's meeting on Tuesday that the closure "is unreasonable and unlikely.”

Members of the Salt Lake City Council are worried the plan to help Utah’s homeless may be unrealistic, given the state’s expected population growth.

Three new homeless shelters/resource centers with a total of 700 beds are planned to open in the next year and a half. But then The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street, which has a capacity of 1,100 beds, is set to close in June 2019.

That means there’s a 400 bed reduction and District 4 Councilman Derek Kitchen raised concerns Tuesday that the “capacity issue” would only get worse in the years to come. Utah is expected to grow by 1.5 million residents by 2050.

Homeless resource providers have answered previously questions about this by arguing that new programs would divert people from becoming homeless to begin with and that new processes would move people back into some form of housing faster.

“I do believe that all of those opportunities that are being created... are exceptional and that they are cutting down some of the flow and really resolving homelessness for many people,” said Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall. “But I do not believe that it’s going to reduce that increased need as our natural population grows.”

Mendenhall said those involved should begin talking about that expected growth sooner rather than later and discuss backup plans — including immediately opening another downtown overflow shelter or keeping the Road Home open beyond its state-mandated close date.

“June of 2019 is very soon, and especially when it’s government that is leading the conversation, I am getting increasingly uncomfortable that that conversation isn’t already happening,” she said. “I think the commitment to the Road Home closure is unreasonable and unlikely.”

Since that Tuesday meeting, where Mendenhall said she was concerned that more data wasn’t available, those involved in the shelters have reached out to her.

“We have heard from multiple partners in this process toward June 2019 closure for the Road Home,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune Wednesday. “So I’m encouraged that there is more information out there than we were presented yesterday and am excited to schedule follow-up briefings for the council as a whole to better understand the progress being made toward that shared goal.”

In a written statement, the executive director of The Road Home, Matthew Minkevitch, said it is “thoughtful of the City Council and others to reflect upon” the issue of growth and space constraints.

He noted The Road Home provided shelter last year to about 8,000 people and said there were “many nights” when the demand for emergency shelter exceeded 900 beds.

“The future supply of shelter in the new model and how it relates to high demand is a concern that is widely held,” he wrote in the statement. “It would be prudent and humane to have contingencies in place when the demand for emergency shelter exceeds the supply of space that will be available in 2019 and beyond.”

Karen Hale, Salt Lake County deputy mayor of community and external affairs, noted at the Tuesday meeting the efforts of the county’s Collective Impact Steering Committee have concentrated on making homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring.”

However, she agreed that elected officials and providers will need to prepare for an expanding population.