Salt Lake City mayoral candidates renew concerns about capacity within new homeless resource centers set to open next month

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Men line up for beds at The Road Home's shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, Jan. 23, 2019. Most Salt Lake City mayoral candidates worry about the capacity to shelter the city's homeless when the main shelter is closed in favor of three much smaller ones next fall.

As resource providers and government agencies across Salt Lake County brace for massive changes to homeless services this summer and fall, Salt Lake City’s mayoral candidates are renewing concerns about capacity under the new homeless resource center model.

The emergency downtown shelter, long said to have a capacity of 1,100, is expected to close this fall and three new centers, which have a total bed count of just 700 among them, will open to replace it.

“I don’t believe that the elimination of the downtown emergency low-barrier shelter will bode well for Salt Lake City,” Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “And I can’t wait to be the mayor to work on this, so I’m working on this now as a councilwoman in holding conversations with our downtown community and the state about a plan for when we have winter weather conditions and the shelters are full and The Road Home is closed. Where are people going to go? We need to answer this question now.”

Mendenhall and other City Council members have raised concerns in the past that the new resource centers would not have adequate capacity for the county’s homeless population — particularly with an expected growth of 1.5 million new residents in the state by 2050.

Resource providers have previously answered such questions 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.

Christina Davis, a spokeswoman with the Department of Workforce Services, also noted that “the growth of the homeless population in Utah has actually been slower than the growth of the overall population.”

She added that the number of beds and total capacity at the shelter operated by The Road Home, which includes the number of people who can fit on mats and cots, have often been conflated. While the 1,100 capacity number is thought to include just the Salt Lake City shelter, she said it actually also includes the Midvale Center for families, which has 300 beds. The emergency shelter has 997, she said.

That means that the new resource center model will have approximately the same number of beds, with 700 across the new centers, as the old system. There are also 381 units of permanent supportive housing units added in 2019 and 2020 that will further move people out of homelessness, she said.

“If you focus on shelter beds and building shelters, then you’ll find people to put in them,” Davis said. “Our goal is to have those people housed.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has long reported the capacity solely at The Road Home’s downtown shelter as 1,100, with no requests for correction or clarification from the organization.

Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, which has raised concerns in the past about space under the new homeless resource models, said that was how he has understood the numbers, as well. He told The Tribune that he worried the new explanation was “misleading" and said he still has questions about capacity.

“I’m feeling like that they will make every effort for that not to be an issue at the time of transition,” he said. "In other words, we’re not going to close the downtown shelter and then immediately put 100 people on the street — we’re going to figure out how to get everybody to fit. Whether that’s pushing more people more aggressively into housing, which is wonderful, or whatever it takes. I just don’t think that the plans they’ve made are going to sustain that effort.”

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, did not respond specifically to questions about the long-cited 1,100 capacity number downtown and the recent changes to the explanation of that number. Instead, he noted in a statement the intergovernmental cooperation in working to ensure there’s enough room for everyone at the shelter, noting that there’s “no shortage of hard work” in this arena.

“When it comes to emergency shelter, the most important number that our community needs to achieve is ‘a few more,’" he wrote. “This means that during the course of any given day, there is enough space for every person seeking shelter including the very last person in need of assistance, with a few more additional beds available, just in case."

Still, several of the other seven candidates in the race told The Tribune they remain concerned — particularly about the conditions in the cold months just before the newly elected mayor will take office in January.

“[Bed capacity] is the No. 1 thing the next mayor will probably have to focus on or resolve related to homelessness, because we’re not going to find out if we’re short on beds most likely until this coming winter right before the new mayor comes in,” said David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition.

Businessman David Ibarra added that the next mayor will “have to be very quick to respond” with a plan to keep people from sleeping on the streets if capacity does become an issue — a sentiment echoed by Stan Penfold, a former Salt Lake City councilman.

Davis said there will be overflow options, possibly at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, as well as opportunities for motel vouchers if there is a higher demand for beds than there are available in the center. But she anticipates that need will be small, based on historical data.

The new homeless resource services model has been billed as a shift away from “warehousing” toward a system that will better provide food delivery, medical care, employment assistance and case management to people experiencing homelessness.

Each center will serve specific populations and offer access to health services, a full mobile medical clinic and on-site case managers to help with things like job counseling. They are modeled to support eight primary impact areas: housing, wellness, employment, education, safety, legal rights, community engagement and positive social support, according to homelessness advocates.

And while candidates said they have concerns about capacity, they almost overwhelmingly support the move toward the new model, with Penfold noting that the county probably needs even more smaller resource centers to better serve the homeless population.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, who noted that she has raised concerns about the process the new resource centers went through, made a similar point, noting that the dispersed-resource model better reflects the realities of people experiencing homelessness.

“They should be in all the communities,” she said. “Not all members of the homeless population or community are from Salt Lake City. They come from all over the state but neighboring states as well.”

Jim Dabakis, a former state senator, said there are still many questions that need to be answered but added that the “spirit” of the conversations among all the community partners has made him optimistic.

“Do we have everything right?” he asked. “No. Have we settled a lot of issues of policing and security around those places? Is the state going to stay here after December with the [Utah] Highway Patrol? Do we have enough in our programs for addiction and in helping people to get out? I’m not convinced that we do. But as long as we keep all those people at the table, as long as we are thinking as a community, there’s nothing we can’t do.”