Salt Lake City’s new resource center for homeless women is already full and overflowing

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alicia St. Clair and her friend Joe Minnitt hang out on the lawn on the east side of the downtown library in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Alicia St. Clair has heard good things about the brand-new homeless resource centers providing beds and services to women in Salt Lake City.

But with an “unprecedented” number of women seeking shelter from autumn nights that continue to grow colder, she’s never made it inside. Instead, she’s spent the past few nights on a mat on the floor at an emergency overflow center located at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall near The Road Home’s soon-to-close shelter in the downtown area.

“It just doesn’t make sense," St. Clair said Friday of the capacity issues already emerging from the new system for delivering homeless services in the Salt Lake City area. "Thank goodness for the overflow is what I was thinking because I don’t know if I can handle any more nights outside. It’s unbearable.”

Despite roughly $63 million spent to construct the three new centers, homeless women have had to sleep in the overflow space at St. Vincent every night since it opened its doors for the season on Oct. 3 — and advocates are concerned that may spell trouble for the system moving into the cold winter months.

There’s space for nearly 60 people at the dining hall, and women have been occupying about a dozen of those spots, according to Michelle Flynn, associate executive director of The Road Home nonprofit. About 15 other women have received vouchers for overnight motel stays.

Bill Tibbitts, a local poverty advocate, said he’s long questioned whether the new resource centers provide enough beds for men, but he didn’t expect deficits for women.

“Finding out that there’s also not enough beds for women … it just means that the capacity issues are a bigger deal than even we thought,” Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

For years, St. Vincent de Paul has served as an overflow area for The Road Home shelter, but it exclusively accommodated men until now. As the downtown shelter has moved out its female clients in recent days, the dining hall has begun taking in women who don’t fit in the two new resource centers. (The third center, still under construction, will serve only men.)

“We’re seeing some unprecedented numbers of women in the system right now,” said Christina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which is helping coordinate the transition.

Providers have seen a deficit of up to 30 beds for women over the past week or so. And the problem could be greater for homeless men; if the client population remains at current levels, the capacity shortfall for males could total 40 beds when The Road Home shuts down in November, based on estimates of the number of men currently in the system provided to The Tribune by Workforce Services.

Homeless service providers and politicians have long raised concerns that the 700 beds spread across three new resource centers as part of a larger shift in homeless services would not fit the needs of the city’s growing population. Under the old model, The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter had space for about 400 more people, including on beds and cots.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Shelter the Homeless and Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS) holds a public open house at the Gail Miller Resource Center on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, with self-guided tours for the public to see the brand new building and learn about the services that will be provided there for both men and women.

While the new system comes with challenges, Davis said the higher number of women who are accessing services can be seen as a positive. At this time of year under the old model, The Road Home was typically serving fewer than 200 women a night; now there are more than 250.

“This increased stability and increased willingness to engage in services is a positive thing," she said, “and that’s one of the reasons we want these better, safer resource centers."

Flynn said providers are paying close attention to any space shortages that emerge as this transition unfolds. Though she shares concerns over capacity, she also argues it’s important to recognize that the system is in the midst of a shake-up.

“This is a time that’s going to be like no other time,” Flynn said. “The changes that we’re implementing are tremendous, really unprecedented.”

Winter worries

The 300-bed men’s shelter in South Salt Lake has yet to open, but all women have been moved out of The Road Home. There is space for 200 women in the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center on 700 South and 40 at the newly opened Gail Miller Resource Center on Paramount Avenue.

While partners behind the shift previously had deflected concerns about space, they acknowledged the deficit earlier this year. They have argued that 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 as well as on using capacity among multiple service providers in the county and beyond as needed.

The programs and case management services available at the new resource centers might keep people there for a bit longer compared with the downtown shelter, Flynn said. As the client turnover rate drops, it makes sense that providers initially would experience a space crunch, she said.

In the long run, though, the more robust service model should ease the strain on the system by helping people exit homelessness once and for all, she said. At the same time, homeless providers are working on contingency plans in case St. Vincent is full to make sure people don’t end up on the street during the bitter cold, Flynn said. They have not finalized any specific strategy at this point.

But the stakes are high, Tibbitts said, noting that individuals stuck outdoors during the winter months are at greater risk of frostbite and other health risks.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Names of the 121 homeless people who lost their lives were read aloud to remember and honor homeless persons who died in Salt Lake City in 2018 during the Homeless Persons' Memorial Day Candlelight Vigil, Dec. 20, 2018 at Pioneer Park.

“There are about 100 people who die outdoors in our state every year," he said, “and obviously if we increase the number of people sleeping outside in the cold, that number is not going to go down.”

Providers and officials should make sure that — when St. Vincent de Paul is once again dedicated to overflow from the men’s shelter — there are enough motel vouchers for homeless women who need a place to sleep, Tibbitts said.

‘Tons of perks'

About $60,000 in state funding is available for handing out motel vouchers to homeless individuals, said Davis. Salt Lake City also kicks in some aid, and the state is prepared to make more money available for the vouchers if the need arises, she said.

“There will be more," she said. “We’re determining that as we move along.”

Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah, said motel vouchers typically go to clients who are on the path to permanent housing and who are working with case managers.

Providers are perhaps seeing record numbers of clients because homeless women are more comfortable staying in the small resource centers than at The Road Home’s shelter, said Bray, whose nonprofit is running the women-only facility. To cope with that influx, the VOA plans to rely on St. Vincent for now and use a small number of motel vouchers later on if there’s no room in the resource centers, she said.

“Hopefully we’ll just keep the flow moving,” she said. “We’ll see what happens with the numbers as the winter plays out.”

St. Clair, who has been homeless for a little over a year and a half, said she plans to keep trying to get a bed at the new homeless resource centers — she doesn’t see many other options.

“I’m sure once you get in there, there’s tons of perks to it, you know?” she said. "Eating every day and not having to go to everywhere, that would make things easier. Free laundry. I could see how it would be great, but I’m just on the outside of that right now.”