Closure of the downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter is delayed, but leaders say the transition to smaller centers is on track to start this summer

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renderings give a snapshot of the three new shelters that will house a total of 700 new beds as the Homeless Resource Center Transition Team gets ready to present the planned timeline for the transition from the downtown shelter to the three new homeless resource centers during a press event at the Utah State Capitol on Wed. Jan. 23, 2019.

The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City will draw down its population of about 750 homeless people to just 200 or so by June 30 — the Legislature-set deadline for the emergency shelter to shut down. By mid-September, it will be fully closed, state officials said Wednesday.

As service providers, community partners and homelessness advocates brace for that closure and the opening of three smaller resource centers across Salt Lake County, they came together Wednesday to outline the challenges and opportunities that come with those changes.

“This transition is important because it will be completely changing the way we serve our friends who are experiencing homelessness,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “The way we’ve done it for decades now will not be the way we do it moving forward.”

The Road Home Shelter is one of the largest in the country, and the move to smaller resource centers has been billed as a way to provide a better system for delivering services like food, medical care, employment assistance and case management to people experiencing homelessness.

But the challenges to get there “are many,” said Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless. One of the major ones is how to communicate the changes to members of the homeless community. He said that outreach will rest with one of five task forces set up to address issues like public safety, client transition and communication.

The delay in closure of the downtown shelter is due to complications getting all the necessary approvals for construction of a South Salt Lake homeless resource center, the largest of the three new shelters.

“We have a target date on the completion of the South Salt Lake center, which I think is Sept. 5 right now,” Jonathan Hardy, state Housing and Community Development Division director, said. “We’re trying to catch up some time on that.”

It likely will be a couple more weeks before the center opens for habitation, “so probably mid-September is a good time frame that we’re thinking of" to move in up to 300 homeless men.

Why the delay?

“Well, we all have PTSD over this," Hardy said. "I mean we were working with South Salt Lake quite a bit. You know they were a community that was less of a willing partner than Salt Lake City. It was kind of foisted upon them as part of that process. So it just took awhile to get the necessary permits approved so that they could start construction.”

“I wouldn’t say they’re excited about it," he said, “but they’ve been better partners over the last year, I’d say. And we’ll continue to be partners with them.”

The other two shelters, with 200 beds apiece, are on schedule to be up and running by July 1. One at 131 E. 700 South will be for women and another at 275 W. High Ave. will be for a mix of men and women.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The homeless shelter under construction at 3380 South 1000 West, in South Salt Lake. Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

Hardy downplayed the Legislature’s deadline of June 30 for The Road Home to close its doors, saying the date was included in legislative intent language in a funding bill, so “it’s not part of the law.”

He acknowledged some lawmakers will likely not see it that way, but overall he believes there is solid support on Capitol Hill.

“We’re not super far behind [the deadline] and we’ll be able to close a lot of the downtown shelter before July 1 with the other two up and running.”

Those responsible for implementing the plan focused on providing more targeted services and assistance believe it is progressing nicely. There will not be any major requests for legislation or money in the upcoming Legislature because all the necessary approvals are in place, and needed funds are included in the Department of Workforce Services’ base budget.

Even with reduced capacity from the current 1,100-bed downtown shelter to 700 beds in the new centers, “we can meet the current demand. We are also ramping up some housing options,” Hardy said. “We want as few people in shelter as possible and more people in housing. The street’s the worst, shelter’s the second and housing [is] better.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The homeless shelter under construction at 131 East, 700 South, in Salt Lake City. Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

The Road Home has an average 750 people a night, and by the time the two new smaller shelters open and warmer summer temperatures are here, “there will be less than 200 people that live in the downtown shelter,” he said.

Cox also added during the news conference that there are plans to have more than 200 units of permanent, supportive housing that can help people experiencing chronic homelessness get off the streets.

Beds in The Road Home will be eliminated as people are transitioned to the smaller centers. An increased law-enforcement presence in the neighborhood that began with the 2017 launch of Operation Rio Grande will continue but will begin to taper off.

“Part of the transition is going to also be ... to maintain the public safety in the Rio Grande area. So that’s part of working closely with Salt Lake [City police] and with state public safety. They’re not just going to pack up and leave,” said Department of Workforce Services spokesman Nate McDonald. Instead, the community can expect to see an “appropriate winding down.”

Another effort underway is to improve state data on the multitude of homeless-service programs. A recent legislative audit slammed the data for being so inconsistent and riddled with errors as to make the numbers useless in determining the success of these efforts.

“Although we found no shortage of information about client activities and the services provided to them,” the audit stated, “we did not find the data to be of much use in terms of monitoring program outcomes.”

Hardy says that data collection has improved with Operation Rio Grande, and more people are being hired to validate the information. At the same time, contracts with service providers will include requirements for the data gathered to be accurate and consistent.

Even so, determining the ultimate success of Utah’s efforts to combat homelessness may be elusive.

“We don’t really have a system to track people to independence necessarily, and most people that enter the homeless system exit within a short time and we don’t ever see them again, which is good," Hardy said. "Seventy percent of the single population leave within 30 days.”

The lack of meaningful data are what concerns Bernie Hart, a homelessness advocate who worries that all the time, money and resources put into this transition will leave the homeless “no better off than they were before” and will instead disperse problems throughout the community.

“It’s been dressed up in a way that it’s for the homeless and things are going to work better,” he said. “And I don’t know if the system itself has been set up itself to take a close enough look at monitoring.”

He’s confident people experiencing homelessness will be able to find the resources they need and doesn’t think the changes will disrupt that. But he worries about how members of the community, who often face mental-health challenges or post-traumatic stress disorder, will handle the “forced relocation.”

“It will be much more traumatic for them," he said, “and that’s going to make it even harder to service.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The homeless shelter under construction on Paramount Ave, in Salt Lake City. Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.