South Salt Lake • At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, South Salt Lake leaders gathered to celebrate the opening of a new homeless resource center the city never wanted.
The event came after a series of delays, caused in part by a standoff between homeless service providers and city officials attempting to control who enters the facility, how long they stay and what they’re allowed to do while there. South Salt Lake ultimately backed off its most controversial demands after the state threatened to wrest oversight power away from the city by taking over the resource center property.
But there was no trace of these tensions at the celebratory ribbon cutting.
“As a community, we have a responsibility to meet the needs of those in crisis,” South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said. “We in South Salt Lake intend to do just that.”
And Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, the nonprofit that will operate the 300-bed men’s resource center, promised his group would treat the city as a partner.
“This is not an easy lift. We pledge to work beside you every step of the way. You can count on it,” Minkevitch said, addressing Wood during the afternoon ceremony.
The completion of this resource center starts the countdown to the scheduled closure of The Road Home’s downtown facility in about a month — after which the Salt Lake City area’s brand new system for delivering homeless services will have to stand on its own. The Road Home has already started relocating its staff into the roughly 77,000-square-foot resource center in South Salt Lake, and men are expected to begin arriving in a few weeks.
There are growing concerns about whether the Salt Lake Valley’s three new homeless resource centers have enough capacity to replace The Road Home shelter as the nights grow longer and colder.
Rainy weather, a construction funding shortfall and challenges getting the necessary approvals for construction in South Salt Lake all pushed back the opening of the last of three new resource centers to this month.
Wood and other city leaders have long been resistant to placing a shelter within city boundaries, pointing to the municipality’s small tax base and the burden it already carries for providing services they believe would not be tolerated in wealthier municipalities. When officials chose South Salt Lake for a resource center in 2017, Wood called it a “lethal blow” to her community and promised a fight.
The city and homeless service providers became locked in a standoff earlier this year, as the city sought to use its permitting process to govern day-to-day life at the resource center. Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the three centers, ultimately threatened to convey the property to the state as a way of breaking a stalemate with the city over how the facility should operate.
The two entities fell just short late last month of reaching an agreement over the requirements necessary for the nonprofit to secure a temporary occupancy permit. The city’s Planning Commission is expected to consider the amendments proposed by the nonprofit board and approve the contract next week. Shelter the Homeless has in the meantime secured a temporary occupancy permit.
As concerns about space constraints within the new resource centers linger, partners involved in the transition have remained focused on getting people into housing over the next few weeks — even as some advocates have argued it would make more sense to keep The Road Home’s larger shelter open into the winter.
On Sunday night, about 395 men stayed at the downtown shelter, nearly 100 more than would fit in the South Salt Lake resource center, according to The Road Home. And 30 women slept on mats at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall because there were no available beds in the resource centers.
State and local officials held an emergency summit last week on the potential capacity shortage and emerged from their meeting promising $1 million in state funding for vouchers and case management to connect people with housing. The Utah Legislature earlier this year had set aside that money for homeless services, according to a spokeswoman with the state’s Department of Workforce Services, which is helping coordinate the transition.
Salt Lake City plans to spend about $436,000 of this funding, with the goal of identifying 123 available homes over the winter, according to a Monday news release.
The transition plan also calls for making the most of space in existing programs, such as 78 new beds in the Odyssey House, which offers residential drug treatment in Salt Lake City. The Other Side Academy, a long-term residential training school, has noted it has 60 empty beds for individuals who are experiencing homelessness, are grappling with addiction or have criminal backgrounds.
Those leading the homeless service transition insist that they’ll never turn away an individual seeking shelter. Even if the resource centers fill up, people can go into a hotel or motel, housing, overflow, residential treatment or a place with a different service provider.
But a couple of city council members have raised concerns about the plan for dealing with potential capacity shortage; Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who is running for city mayor, said in a tweet after the state’s meeting that its plan “doesn’t offer anything new to address the humanitarian crisis already happening.”
City Councilman Chris Wharton also raised concerns on Twitter about the decision, which he noted had come without notice or discussion with the council in the city where two of the three resource centers are located.
“I believe in the new model but this seems arbitrary and risky for vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in our City,” he said of the determination to close The Road Home’s shelter as planned.
The Salt Lake City Council as a whole, in a statement Friday, acknowledged concerns about capacity but was more subdued, calling the state’s plan “promising.”
“Making more units available statewide for people experiencing homelessness is the ultimate goal, both immediately while freezing temperatures threaten, and long term so that people can move into safe and stable housing for good,” the council said in the statement.
Still, council members plan to hold a “fact-finding session” Nov. 12 to get an update about progress for creating new housing and alternate plans if the shelter closes and there are not enough beds available.