Amid growing concern that the new $63 million homeless resource system in the Salt Lake City area doesn’t have enough beds, a Utah official said Tuesday that the state has set aside a shuttered liquor store and adjoining warehouse to potentially take homeless individuals out of the cold.
Mattresses have been brought into the two state-owned buildings located within Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood, Jim Russell, the state’s director of facilities construction and management, said — noting that he’d been directed to reserve the space about a month ago in a request the Department of Workforce Services had passed on to him.
A spokeswoman for Workforce Services, which is helping lead the transition in homeless resources, said that idea was “on a menu of options and items” being considered in case of a capacity crisis. Later in the day, a different spokesman from the same agency and a spokeswoman with the lieutenant governor’s office acknowledged the idea but said it was no longer on the table. They said the warehouse is simply being used to store excess mattresses from area homeless shelters.
Still, the two said the state is working on a solution to a problem that advocates have long pointed out — that three new resource centers have hundreds fewer beds than the beds and sleeping mats in The Road Home’s downtown shelter, which is being shuttered. And the warehouse proposal, which came out of an inventory of available state buildings, demonstrates the state’s willingness to consider any and all options for housing people experiencing homelessness as the winter draws nearer.
“We don’t really know, as soon as it gets cold, what the ramifications with the new shelters will be,” Russell said of the need to examine new overflow options.
He said he’s not directly involved in planning the new homelessness model and that other agencies would have the most up-to-date information about overflow plans.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is calling a “meeting of the minds” within the next couple of weeks to prepare for the first winter under the state’s new model in homeless services, according to Kirsten Rappleye, Cox’s chief of staff. She said that the meeting will include legislative leadership, state officials, community members and city representatives.
"We're heading toward the cold and also toward the legislative session, and we want to make sure everyone is on the same page," Rappleye said.
The state liquor store and warehouse that were under consideration are located at 1457 South Main St. within the Ballpark neighborhood, which has recently experienced an increase in violent crime and is already home to the 200-bed men’s and women’s resource center on Paramount Avenue.
“That’s a deeply unserved part of our neighborhood,” said Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins, noting that she hoped the state would not take that route. “That’s within the two-block radius where the four homicides occurred. That’s perilously close to the Main Street Motel.”
The state liquor store, surrounded by a number of single-family homes and apartments, has been closed since 2011 but is still equipped with lighting and heat, Russell said.
If the buildings were needed to accommodate homeless individuals, officials could bring in bathroom trailers, he said. Men and women could have had separate sleeping quarters, one group in the defunct liquor store and the other in the warehouse, he added.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has talked about addressing shelter capacity shortages by getting people into permanent housing, distributing hotel and motel vouchers and using St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall as an overflow space, said Christina Davis, a DWS spokeswoman. The coalition will continue to refine its plan, after which the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee will decide whether to fund it, she added.
Advocates have long raised concerns that the 400-person gap between The Road Home’s downtown shelter and the new homeless resource centers would be a problem, though service providers have maintained that a focus on diverting people away from homelessness and on getting people into housing would help reduce the total unhoused population.
The Salt Lake Tribune first reported Monday, though, that all the beds for homeless women within the new homeless resource centers are already full and that many women have had to sleep on mats in an overflow emergency shelter at St. Vincent as a result. And the needs for men could be even greater once the last of three new resource centers opens in South Salt Lake next month, raising questions about the capability of the new system to keep people out of the cold.
That’s no small problem, says local anti-poverty advocate Bill Tibbitts, who notes that more than 100 people experiencing homelessness died in Salt Lake City last year.
“One night in the snow can be catastrophic,” he said. “People die; people get frostbite and lose fingers and toes. People can be in the hospital for weeks. Keeping people indoors during the winters is the reason communities around the country built homeless shelters.”
Closing The Road Home?
Hawkins, the Ballpark community council chairwoman, said she wants people experiencing homelessness to get the help they need. But instead of looking at opening the liquor store and warehouse, she said she would support efforts to leave open The Road Home shelter, which has operated for decades in the Rio Grande neighborhood and is scheduled to close next month.
That idea was floated also by Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall, who at a debate Monday night said the strain on the new homeless services system in its first few months raises questions about the timeline for closing the emergency shelter.
The Road Home shouldn’t close “for political reasons,” she argued, but “when we have the appropriate system to deal with the human beings who are on our streets.”
Dave Kelly, public relations director for the Pioneer Park Coalition, which advocates for Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area, said the community organization does not see a need to leave The Road Home open.
“We don’t want somebody to freeze to death,” he said, but increased numbers of women in the system show that the model is working and he anticipates there won’t be a need for more overflow. “This is what will help people move forward is they’re in a safe environment. They’re in an environment where you are known as an individual, not just a number.”
Leaders within Crossroads Urban Center, which provides homeless services in Salt Lake City, disagree and called Monday afternoon on the lieutenant governor, who chairs the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee, to support a proposal to keep The Road Home open until next year.
The state’s timeline for closing The Road Home is “arbitrary,” the organization argued. But “waiting until the end of April to close the downtown shelter will not harm anyone and will give us an entire year to develop overflow plans for the winter of 2020.”
The Legislature had initially set a deadline for closing The Road Home by June 30 but the state failed to meet that date following a wet spring that caused construction delays, complications getting the necessary approvals for construction in South Salt Lake and because of financial problems. The center’s closure has now been pushed on several occasions, each time further into the winter.
Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center, said he hadn’t yet heard back from Cox. But in a Tuesday phone interview, Rappleye said the state will rely on community partners to direct next steps.
“That’s why we’re asking all these good minds to come up with options,” she said.
Nate McDonald, a DWS spokesman, said leaving The Road Home shelter open is “not an option on the table” right now and that the state’s lease with the nonprofit states that it will close a month after an occupancy permit is granted to the final resource center in South Salt Lake.
Russell said after the emergency shelter empties out, the plan is to demolish the building and clean up any hazardous materials before the state sells the property, he said.
The state’s asking price will be about $4.2 million, and while officials haven’t yet listed it for sale, Russell said two potential buyers have already emerged. Both of them are interested in constructing mixed-use buildings with restaurants or stores on the ground floor and offices on the upper floors, he said.