Pioneer Park Coalition worries about losing ‘everything we’ve worked so hard for’ with homeless service transition delay

The Pioneer Park Coalition, a community organization that advocates for Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area and seeks to address issues related to homelessness there, is raising the alarm about the delayed timeline for a massive shift in homelessness services.

The Legislature had initially set a deadline for closure of the downtown shelter located near Pioneer Park on Sunday, a move planned to coincide with the opening of two new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and a third in neighboring South Salt Lake. But state officials earlier this year announced they wouldn’t meet that target and pushed the closure to mid-September; last month, they announced they were pushing it again to sometime in October.

In Monday’s edition of its regular newsletter, the Pioneer Park Coalition worried this delay would negatively impact the progress made on homelessness issues in Salt Lake County.

“To put things quite simply, we are worried that the leaders you trusted to help the homeless community and your neighborhood have let us all down,” the organization wrote, noting that “June 30 was chosen because it allows the resource centers plenty of time to work with their clients before winter sets in. Now, we'll be lucky if all of the shelters will be open by September.”

The email encourages people to reach out to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Shelter the Homeless Executive Director Preston Cochrane to express their concerns about the timeline in an effort not to “lose everything we’ve worked so hard for.”

Christina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which is helping coordinate the shelter transition, said the email didn't seem like "a good faith effort to provide accurate information" to coalition members.

While the email said the shelter's service providers haven't received executed leases or budgets, Davis said many of these documents are in place or close to being finalized.

Contracts for state funding have already been signed between shelter operators and the state, she said. And lease agreements between Shelter the Homeless — the nonprofit that owns the three shelter sites — and organizations running two of the resource centers are under final legal review, Davis said.

Staffers from Volunteers of America, Utah, which is operating the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, are poised to move into the building in the coming week or so, she said.

And the delayed timeline for opening the resource centers and closing The Road Home’s downtown shelter went public several weeks ago, she noted.

“The email was just an interesting approach to information that’s pretty publicly available,” she said.

In response to the coalition’s newsletter, Cochrane said Shelter the Homeless has “actively kept the public up to date” on critical schedule changes for the shelter transition.

“Shelter the Homeless’ primary concern in the transition phase is to ensure the facilities are completed and all services providers are fully operational to meet the needs of those individuals who will be transitioning from the downtown community shelter to the new Homeless Resource Centers (HRCs) in the best way possible,” Cochrane’s prepared statement said.

The Pioneer Park Coalition pointed out that the women’s resource center, which has been completed, won’t be operational until August. And they noted that the opening of the shelter in South Salt Lake has repeatedly been pushed back because of resistance from the city, “despite receiving a portion of the neighboring cities’ sales tax as a compensation in good faith for increased policing in the area.” With the delays, “weather will quickly become an issue for the new resource centers,” the Pioneer Park Coalition wrote. “Getting staff trained and documents signed takes time, and if service providers wait much longer to prepare, they face the prospect of not being able to open before winter.”

Davis said she's hopeful but not certain that the shelter transition will be able to stay on schedule from this point forward.

"It's still a super complex process and there's tons of moving parts. I would hesitate to say nothing could happen that would delay it further," she said. "That everybody is working toward that timeline."

While leaders have cited increased construction costs and an unusually rainy spring as factors behind the delayed timeline, the Pioneer Park Coalition said it believes “there are other factors at play — the results of which could be devastating.”

A spokeswoman for the coalition could not be reached for immediate comment on Monday to elaborate on what those factors might be. But the organization does imagine the consequences of a timeline delayed as far back as January.

“We will be right back at square one,” the organization wrote. “We will have lost all the progress we all have fought so hard to make. Your neighborhood will return to the lawless crime hub that it was before. Worst of all, our city's homeless community will be exposed once more to cartels and traffickers that Operation Rio Grande chased out in 2017.”

Davis, however, countered that the law enforcement presence around Pioneer Park isn't about to disappear; the state allocated funding for public safety support in that area through June 2020, she said.

Beyond the concerns about delays, candidates for Salt Lake City mayor have also expressed worry that the new resource centers will have a capacity deficiency of 400 beds. Davis has said the number of beds and total capacity at the shelter operated by The Road Home have been conflated, which would mean the new resource center model will have approximately the same number of beds.