Salt Lake City’s homeless community doesn’t know much about the shift in services planned once The Road Home closes — and that was intentional

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharon Thompson hangs on to her breakfast outside the Road Home on July 11, 2019.

Idaho native Travis Martin has been staying at The Road Home’s downtown shelter for a little more than three months — but he’ll be out of there soon, whether or not he finds a roommate and housing as he hopes.

It won’t be long before Salt Lake City’s emergency shelter closes its doors, to be replaced by three new resource centers scattered across the valley. But on this morning in late June, Martin says he hasn’t been told much about the new men’s shelter under construction in South Salt Lake.

"I have no idea where it's even at," the 42-year-old shrugs.

All he knows about the transition is what’s written on the two fact sheets zip-tied to a fence outside The Road Home, he says.

In just a few weeks, the first of the new homeless centers will open as part of a larger shift away from a centralized approach to providing services.

Yet people experiencing homelessness — and even leaders involved in the transition — say some details of how the new system will work remain fuzzy, including questions about how those living at the new resource centers will access downtown services once they’ve relocated.

The haziness is due in part to the transition team’s strategic decision to stall their major information push to the homeless population. It was only Monday that they began hosting question-and-answer sessions to give people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City a glimpse of what lies ahead.

“We don’t necessarily want emergency shelter to be the destination,” said Tricia Davis, a homelessness program manager for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “We want to make sure that we’re connecting people to housing ... as much as possible. So we were holding off until a couple weeks before we knew that we’d be transitioning folks.”

Still, homeless service providers may struggle to undo the months of misinformation and rumors that have filled the information vacuum.

“We just hear the gossip, you know?” Crescentia Fasthorse, 55, told The Salt Lake Tribune as she ate her breakfast at The Road Home late last month. “And it’s getting worse and worse and worse and making it sound like it’s going to be a prison.”

Others are generally distrustful of the system for delivering homeless services, no matter what they’re told — a reality prompted in part by what they characterize as bad experiences at the Road Home, where auditors in 2018 found lax security and widespread drug use.

Representatives of The Road Home say conditions have improved since that time, but a number of people interviewed by The Tribune described a chaotic, dirty and at times unsafe environment inside the shelter. The presence of illegal drugs and the possibility for overdoses and violence create an atmosphere of simmering anxiety, they say, and some have concluded they’re better off staying outdoors.

“I will never go to a shelter again as long as I live, even if I have to camp out,” said John Ward, a 60-year-old man who was, as of late June, staying in an adult detox center rather than at The Road Home, where he said it was difficult to maintain sobriety. “It’s a trap. Even with the new resources.”

‘Details you don’t know’

The new resource centers — two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake — were originally scheduled to open by June 30, the deadline for the emergency downtown shelter’s closure. That date has been pushed back twice now, to sometime in October.

The plan for the dispersed model is to furnish a full suite of services within each center, including breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; and housing assessments.

News of the delays has percolated out to individuals experiencing homelessness, but many say they are relying on word-of-mouth to stay on top of the latest developments. Martin’s primary source of information, the fact sheet posted outside The Road Home, displayed an incorrect transition timeline as of Thursday — one that officials discarded weeks ago.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Work continues on the new homeless resource center at 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake, located next to the Jordan River Parkway on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said many clients at The Road Home will need emotional support to deal with uprooting and shifting to another facility.

“You’re talking about people with deep trauma,” said Hill, who’s also the government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, you’re going to go over here now instead of here.’ It’s a big deal.”

Utah Community Action, the nonprofit agency that will coordinate intake at all three shelters, has been holding one-on-one meetings with homeless individuals to prepare them for the upcoming shift. So far, the organization has assessed about 130 or 140 of the roughly 180 women at The Road Home, in advance of a move to the new women’s shelter over the next few weeks. A Utah Community Action representative said the group also is on pace to meet its goal of diverting 200 people from emergency shelter before the resource centers open.

Still, some gaps linger for the population most affected by the changes. How will they travel to and from the shelters, some of which are a significant distance from downtown services and jobs? What will the centers’ new rules look like? How will conditions at the facilities differ from those at the emergency shelter?

Bill Tibbitts, the associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center and a poverty advocate who has observed the shelter transition process with a skeptical eye, said this information vacuum might point to a deeper issue: That the people in charge still don’t know the answers to these questions.

“You can’t communicate details you don’t know,” he said.

‘A little more inconvenient’

For Salt Lake City’s homeless population, food, shelter and health care are all within reach inside the small village of services that has formed near the Rio Grande neighborhood. Getting to downtown employment also is fairly painless because The Road Home is close to the city center and sits next to the TRAX line within the Utah Transit Authority’s free-fare zone.

Transportation is among the biggest concerns facing people who will be affected by the shift. That’s because they fear navigating between the new centers and any downtown resources or jobs could be tricky — most of all for men at the South Salt Lake facility, which is nearly a two-hour walk from the free-fare zone.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

David Christopher Coons, 54, was living at The Road Home as of late June but said he will likely camp after the transition. He says the 300-bed men’s resource center at 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake is too far from the resources he’s come to rely on.

“If it’s really cold, then I might go out there,” he said. “But if it’s just to get to it, then you have TRAX fare to get there and risk getting a ticket and going to the jail to sleep someplace warm. It could be one of the two.”

(A spokeswoman for the transition team said people in Coons’ situation could speak to a caseworker about being assigned to the coed resource center on Paramount Avenue, a site much closer to the free-fare zone.)

Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge John Baxter, who runs a court for people experiencing homelessness, said transportation is one of the “critical issues” this community faces. Homeless people already are often subject to citations, he noted, and it’s possible the dispersal of the population could exacerbate their contact with the criminal justice system.

“Our homeless guys get citations all the time for riding on TRAX without tickets or riding on buses — more TRAX than buses,” he said. “I don't know whether there's a bus line that goes by [the South Salt Lake resource center] or not. If there is [one] there, I don't think there are very many.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Judge John L. Baxter listens attentively to a defendant during court held for homeless or transient people in the Weigand Center in Salt Lake City, June 28, 2019. In Salt Lake City's specialized homeless court, operated since May 2004, people experiencing homelessness can take care of misdemeanor charges and clear up outstanding warrants in an informal atmosphere designed to be less intimidating than a regular court.

Transition partners note that people heading to the South Salt Lake center can travel by public transit, with bus lines to the area and a TRAX stop located about a mile from the shelter. Those who can’t afford the fare could use vouchers or tokens supplied by a number of nonprofits supporting low-income and homeless populations, and other forms of aid are available for veterans and Medicaid recipients, they say.

Ann Hoffman, 56, said she’s hopeful that the new, 200-bed women’s shelter will offer a better experience than she’s had at The Road Home. The potential downside is that the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center at 131 E. 700 South is almost two miles from Vivint Smart Home Arena, where she has a job washing dishes on Jazz game days.

Oftentimes, she doesn’t leave until early morning, after the trains have stopped running.

“I’m going to have to walk from the arena to the shelter at 1 in the morning … and risk getting attacked by someone or stopped by someone or robbed,” Hoffman said. It "was somewhat dangerous but a much shorter walk to The Road Home. So it’s going to be a little more inconvenient. But I can’t do anything about it.”

Transition leaders recognize transportation needs aren’t tied to the new resource centers alone and should be part of a broader policy discussion about ease of movement around the valley. Those living on the streets and low-income people in housing experience similar challenges when it comes to getting around, they noted.

“Whatever transportation options individuals are accessing as part of the resource center, we want them to be able to continue that when no longer at the center,” said Rebecca Banner, a state Workforce Services employee who is helping lead transportation planning for the transition.

A handful of the eight candidates running for Salt Lake City mayor have pushed for free UTA fare throughout the city as a way to promote transit ridership and improve air quality, a move that would also help the city’s homeless population.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A UTA TRAX train at the City Center station in Salt Lake City is reflected in a pillar, June 5, 2019.

Service providers at the resource centers say they will have a few vans of their own for use in special situations — to take clients to certain medical appointments, for example. But at this point, no complete transportation plan exists for shelter clients, and there is no designated budget for a holistic proposal.

Preston Cochrane of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the three resource centers, suggested the possibility of embedding a barcode on shelter identification cards that could give a resident admittance to public transit.

No funding is in place for that concept, Cochrane acknowledged, but he said the homeless transition team is in talks with UTA and Salt Lake County about options for addressing transportation needs.

A UTA spokesman said the agency has no plans to change service outside the free-fare zone as a result of the new shelters. A representative from the agency has listened in on one meeting about the homeless shift, and that’s about the extent of its involvement so far, spokesman Carl Arky said.

“Nothing substantive has been discussed,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “No plans have been formulated.”

‘On paper, it looks good’

Seeking answers to the questions around the transition that have been percolating for weeks, more than 30 people staying at The Road Home gathered in the media room in the homeless day center near the shelter on Thursday morning. After some stops and starts, they watched a short “virtual tour” video prepared by those involved in the transition, which gives basic information like the addresses of the new facilities and the number of people who will be housed at each one.

John Casias, a Utah native who listened to the presentation, said he left with a better understanding of the transition and appreciated the chance to ask questions. The dispersed model seems innovative and promising in many ways, he said.

“On paper, it looks good. On paper, it’s a great idea,” said Casias, who’s been homeless for several months.

The challenge, he believes, will be convincing people to abandon Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande neighborhood, which have long functioned as a hub for the homeless community.

The new resource centers have been billed as a one-stop-shop for resources and as a way to help people get out of homelessness for good. And although some say they are resistant to the move, others hope the new facilities and way of providing services will help them lift themselves out of the cycle of homelessness and into permanent housing.

“Hopefully, the new place is a much better place for us, meaning maybe the setup with the beds and everything is better,” Hoffman said. “Maybe they’ll have a better program for coming in and checking in. Maybe the bathrooms will be better. Maybe the whole thing will be better for us.”

Sharon Thompson, 61, began to cry as she talked about the shame she’s felt since becoming homeless.

Now, she’s hopeful a new, cleaner building could help pull people out of the fog of living on the streets — and that those around her will be grateful for the efforts people involved in the transition have made.

“I think maybe it will brighten spirits,” she said. “I just know that living out here, it’s going to be hard. They’re going to complain. They’re not going to see the bright side. They’re not going to see that what they’re making you do is help yourself, but what they’re trying to do is get you out of this rut of giving up.”