Partners behind the forthcoming shift in Salt Lake City's homeless services have previously deflected concerns about whether three new resource centers will fill the void left by the closure of The Road Home's downtown shelter later this year.
Now, officials are acknowledging that Salt Lake County's total capacity for serving its unhoused population is about to drop by several hundred and say they are working on a plan to make sure no one is left out in the snow for lack of shelter.
“Are there concerns that there won’t be enough capacity? Yeah, there are,” acknowledged Nate McDonald, a communication director for the state Department of Workforce Services, in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “But that’s where we will have contingencies in place.”
Under the new model — which focuses on directing people into housing, treatment programs or care facilities rather than using emergency shelter as a default — there will be a stronger emphasis on diverting people away from homelessness, he said, as well as on using capacity among multiple service providers in the county and beyond as needed.
McDonald expects there will be a need for overflow for about six months of the year, from mid-October through mid-April, “if we go off of just last year’s numbers.” But after the transition, “we’re hoping ... during those cold winter months that we’re able to really start seeing those numbers drop,” he said.
Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, has questioned whether the new system will provide enough capacity and said the first priority of any homeless service model should be to take people off the street when it's dangerously cold outside.
“Create whatever system you want, but make sure you have enough room to get everybody inside when it’s really, really necessary to do so,” said Bailey, whose nonprofit aids low-income Utahns.
Concerns about space availability have swirled around the changeover from the existing downtown shelter to the three, smaller resource centers, the first of which is slated to open over the next couple weeks. But a definitive before-and-after comparison of capacity has been difficult to nail down.
The three new shelters have combined room for 700; the South Salt Lake shelter will accommodate up to 300 men and the two Salt Lake City shelters will each have 200 beds. These capacity limits are cemented in the regulations for the two Salt Lake shelters and are legally binding, according to city officials.
The downtown shelter has nearly the same number of beds, transition leaders say, but has a maximum occupancy of 1,062 people using mats and cots — or nearly 400 more than the resource centers will be able to hold.
The new system, however, will prioritize placing someone in housing, hopefully easing capacity needs by redirecting people away from emergency shelter, said Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
The Department of Workforce Services, which is assisting with the transition, anticipates that 381 units of permanent supportive housing units to be added this year and next will further help move people out of homelessness and open up room for others in need.
"It's not, 'Go find a shelter bed.' It's, 'How do we get you out of shelter?'" said Hill, who’s also the government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Staff at the three new resource centers will work first to divert people away from homelessness. In cases where overflow may be needed, they will work to place people at facilities like The INN Between, a homeless hospice; the YMCA and sober living or detox centers, McDonald said.
If there isn’t another option, that’s when someone would be sent to the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, located near The Road Home’s shelter in the downtown area, which will still be available as an overflow shelter, said Hill. About 80 or 90 people can sleep on mats there, Hill said.
Kim Correa, executive director of The INN Between, said her facility wouldn’t be a good option for overflow or diversion because its requirements make it difficult to admit people quickly.
“We are continuing to identify terminally ill individuals who are at the shelters (resource centers) and transfer them to The INN Between, as we always do, but we will not take emergency overflow clients,” she said in a statement on Friday morning.
But service providers say they also want to look one step beyond St. Vincent’s and to have a contingency plan, still in the works, for where to shelter people experiencing homelessness if the overflow is ever at capacity.
“We want to make sure that no matter what, we’re prepared for those cold winter months,” McDonald said. “No one’s ever saying we’re going to trust in our model so much that all of a sudden we have people freezing out on the streets and we don’t have any place [for them] to go. We’re going to have backups to the backups to be ready just in case.”
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who has been outspoken about capacity concerns and has warned of a potential “humanitarian crisis” this winter if government leaders fail to plan ahead, said she's advocated for a contingency plan given the firm population caps at the three new resource centers.
Women, especially, need a designated overflow location, she said, since the new model allots just 240 of 700 beds to women and St. Vincent's has historically only sheltered men.
"We need to be uniquely prepared for the needs of women seeking shelter," Mendenhall said.
That being said, it's important to recognize that the region is in the midst of a wholesale shift in homelessness services, making one-to-one capacity comparisons difficult, she said.
Bailey said he’s happy to hear that transition partners are formulating backup plans for sheltering people when the three resource centers are full, especially because facilities such as The INN Between serve specific populations and aren’t available to everyone.
Another worry for him, though, is that the new system is designed based on the needs of today and will be strained as the county's population increases.
“I hope we’re building a system that has the capacity to grow with the valley,” he said.
Clarification: Updated at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 16 >> This article has been updated with new information about The INN Between's intake process and role in the shelter overflow plan.