New homeless centers: Most Salt Lake City residents are hopeful, but some remain skeptical

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Geraldine E. King Women's Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Aug. 6, 2019.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story relied on poll results that included at least 57 respondents who don’t live in Salt Lake City. A full explanation for this error can be found here. This story has been updated to include more accurate polling data. This does not materially change the results of the poll.

A majority of Salt Lake City residents believe that the closure of the downtown Road Home shelter later this year and the opening of three smaller resource centers in its place will help address homelessness, according to a new poll.

Some 42% of the 387 residents who were surveyed last week said they expect the move will “probably” improve homelessness, while 14% thought it “definitely” would, according to The Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. About 34% of residents overall believe the new centers likely won’t improve the situation. (The earlier version of the poll had the “probably” category at 41%. All other numbers were the same.)

The results suggest that while respondents support the shift to a dispersed service model, they recognize it won’t end homelessness in the city, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

“This did not solve the problem here in the state, but Utahns clearly felt like this was a positive step forward,” Perry said in a phone interview Monday.

Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, said he’s not surprised that city residents gave a vote of confidence to the new model for serving the homeless community — a paradigm that he added will facilitate more direct contact between shelter residents and case managers.

"By having a smaller population, you have a more client-centered approach," said Cochrane, whose nonprofit owns the shelter properties.

The new model will also enable providers to offer separate living quarters for men and women, a change that could be particularly meaningful to survivors of domestic violence or other forms of abuse, Cochrane said.

The women’s shelter at 131 E. 700 South will be the first of the three to open in coming weeks, followed by the coed shelter on Paramount Avenue. The men’s resource center in South Salt Lake will be the last to come on line.

Poll respondent Megan Curtis, 35, said she hopes the new resource centers work but worries that spreading resources around the city may make it harder on people experiencing homelessness.

“I was really concerned that they were splitting them up so far apart,” the Sugar House resident told The Tribune. “If you have medical issues, if you need to go to other places where they do distribute meals, then some of those things — it scares me that you’re so far away from all that. Unless they have it all there, too, which then it feels like you’re spreading out resources that maybe don’t need to be.”

While transition leaders say the dispersed center model will have a full suite of services centralized within each center — including breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; and housing assessments — that’s a concern shared by some members of the homeless community. They worry particularly about transportation services and how they will access downtown services once they’ve relocated.

Patricia Sorensen, 74, said homelessness is a “very big problem” facing the city but she’s among those who are less hopeful that the effort by state, county and city leaders, as well as service providers and other stakeholders, will have its intended effect.

“It’s going to cause more problems in more neighborhoods,” the poll respondent told The Tribune. “I think all it’s done is taking it from one place and spending a lot of money to take it a whole bunch of places and ruin a whole bunch of neighborhoods, and I’m not happy about it.”

Sorensen, who lives in the city’s East Bench neighborhood, said the issue has increasingly affected her community after Operation Rio Grande, an all-out attack on drug use and crime among homeless people downtown. Many people experiencing homelessness have spread across Salt Lake County and even the Wasatch Front in the aftermath, in part to avoid the heavy police presence near The Road Home.

She’s also skeptical of the homelessness efforts in light of recent news that the resource center scheduled to open this fall in South Salt Lake may be further delayed because of a $13 million past-due bill on construction and failure to pay subcontractors. Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the three centers, is requesting a short-term bridge loan from the county to complete construction on time.

“I don’t know why they can’t ever bring anything in under budget,” Sorensen said. “I think that’s a huge problem.”

The recent signs of financial struggle also trouble Utah officials as they take stock of the state’s ongoing partnership with Shelter the Homeless and nonprofits involved in the transition. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who sits on the board of directors for Shelter the Homeless, last week wrote “calls to action” to the organization, warning that each delay undermines the effort’s credibility with its partners.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said in a phone interview that he’s frustrated over reports about unpaid bills and conflicts between transition partners and South Salt Lake’s mayor.

Gibson, who sponsored 2017 legislation setting aside state funds for the three resource centers, said he would like to “scrutinize this issue more moving forward” to ensure taxpayer dollars are being well-managed. While he expressed confidence that Shelter the Homeless is capable of seeing the transition through, reports of financial difficulty could make philanthropists think twice before donating to the nonprofit, he said.

Cochrane said the Shelter the Homeless board is committed to working with partners to drum up funds for the project’s completion.

While there’s some skepticism, many community members have expressed hope about the efforts. Businesses near the women’s center scheduled to open this month, for example, have said they’re ready to “embrace” the 200 residents who will be staying there.

The poll of Salt Lake City voters may not, however, capture the views of residents in South Salt Lake, where a 300-bed men’s resource center is planned. The site was picked over the objections of that city and it has been less welcoming to the homeless population. Its center faces the possibility of a state takeover after an impasse with Shelter the Homeless over how it should operate.

The poll was conducted from July 29 to 31 had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.96 percentage points. It employed a mix of phone calls to landlines and cellphones as well as an online portion.