Emergency meeting on homelessness leads to one-month housing push and $1M but no new overflow solutions for crowded shelters

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather outside the menÕs side entrance to the Road Home in Salt Lake City at the end of the day on Wed. Oct. 30, 2019. An emergency meeting about possibly keeping the Road Home open through the winter is being discussed because new homeless shelters arenÕt meeting needs.

As Salt Lake City faces record cold temperatures and homeless advocates raise concerns about space constraints within the area’s three new homeless resource centers, an emergency meeting of local and state leaders Wednesday ended with no new overflow options.

Instead, partners involved in the transition are dedicating up to $1 million to help get people into housing and are calling on landlords to join them in this four-week push to free up space in the overcrowded shelters. After that point, civic leaders promised to reconvene to see where things stand.

And though Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said during a meeting last week that the question of keeping The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter open through the winter was still on the table, he told reporters after the closed-door meeting Wednesday that “keeping the downtown shelter open would be a step backward" and that leaders want the focus to shift to a new, housing-first model.

We believe strongly that keeping the focus on housing and diversion will always be the best option,” Cox said. “We will have a better chance of truly helping homeless individuals if we get them into housing first.”

The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City will lead the effort to find permanent housing for 50 to 60 homeless individuals over the next four weeks — in part by appealing to the city’s landlords to accept rental vouchers issued to those who are chronically homeless, Cox said. Up to $1 million in new state funding for this push will support additional rental vouchers and case management, officials said.

On a parallel track, providers will also strive to make the most of 78 new beds in the Odyssey House, which runs residential drug treatment programs in Salt Lake City.

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center, said he sees the call to landlords as a way to abdicate responsibility to “an anonymous collection of property owners all over the valley.”

“It absolutely is a failure of leadership to say that we’re going to close the facility, we’re going to cause a problem, but we’re not responsible for fixing it,” he said.

While the downtown emergency shelter was originally scheduled to close this summer, delays have pushed that date into November — meaning that the new service model will be tested during the most frigid months, when finding shelter could be a life-or-death matter.

The three new resource centers will collectively have space for 700 people, about 400 fewer than could fit in The Road Home’s downtown shelter. Service providers have reported that the new female-only resource center and the facility for men and women are already filled to capacity, and they have been using St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall as an overflow space for women. Other women are receiving vouchers to stay in hotels or motels if there is no room for them in the resource centers.

And the final resource center in South Salt Lake, an all-male facility with about 300 beds, is not big enough to handle the roughly 400 men who have been sleeping at The Road Home’s downtown shelter in recent nights.

But Cox said Wednesday that the shift in homeless services has never been about increasing emergency shelter capacity.

“The key distinction from the old model to the new model is the focus on housing,” Cox told reporters. “Capacity limits were set in order to force this shift and make the entire community rally around housing first.”

Through a coordinated intake process, the new system is designed to divert people away from emergency shelter and into alternative housing options, treatment beds or other residential facilities, he said. But unseasonably cold temperatures have driven people to the region’s emergency shelters, and the wide array of services at the new resource centers have kept clients there for longer than usual, providers say.

Cox said landlords can help ease the overloaded resource centers by agreeing to take housing vouchers that provide rental assistance. However, that’s not always easy to do — particularly if a person has felonies or evictions on their record.

The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year spent six weeks with a couple experiencing homelessness as the pair navigated the voucher process with the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City.

Katherine and Ron Barrett had a Section 8 Shelter Plus Care Housing Voucher, which is one of the smaller programs the city offers but serves those who are chronically homeless. It took them weeks to find a place that met the price and location requirements established by the federal government and to find a landlord who would take them — demonstrating the challenges many homeless people face finding a home in such a tight rental market.

Cox said The Road Home has now received a temporary occupancy permit to begin operating the South Salt Lake shelter and that staff can begin moving in tomorrow. Residents are expected to move in in the middle of November.

The issuance of that temporary occupancy permit begins the 30-day countdown to the closure of The Road Home’s downtown shelter, officials said.

While transition leaders unveiled no new overflow solution Wednesday, Cox said they are committed to providing shelter to anyone seeking it. Providers will continue to place people in hotels or motels or in the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, if needed. Officials are also looking at the feasibility of sheltering people overnight in the Weigand Homeless Resource Center operated by Catholic Community Services, although doing so would require a conditional use permit.

The closure of The Road Home has already faced multiple delays as a result of rainy weather, challenges getting the necessary approvals for construction in South Salt Lake and, most recently, because of millions of dollars in past-due bills for construction. The completion date of the resource center was pushed from Aug. 31 to mid-October as a result.

Several homeless advocates, as well as Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall, have advocated in recent weeks for keeping The Road Home open through the winter. Crossroads Urban Center has argued that the state’s timeline for closing the downtown emergency shelter is “arbitrary," and that waiting to close it would “not harm anyone” and would provide time to create overflow plans for the next winter.