Road Home’s downtown shelter closed to homeless as Utah transitions to new service model

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign outside the Road Home has been modified to say "Road Home closed" in this photo from Oct. 9, 2018.

The Road Home’s downtown shelter stopped providing services Thursday, marking the official end of an old “warehousing” model for delivering homeless resources in the Salt Lake City area and the beginning of a new era focused more on moving people off the streets for good.

But skepticism remains about whether the three new homeless resource centers will be able to fill the void left by the downtown shelter they’ll replace, moving into the cold winter months. With 700 beds, the new system will have the capacity for about 400 fewer people than could fit inside The Road Home.

The women’s only and co-ed resource centers are already at capacity, and Michelle Flynn, interim executive director of The Road Home, said the 300-bed South Salt Lake shelter that opened earlier this month has just a “handful” of slots left after officials began moving men in Monday.

“This evening, you’ll see a lot of us working hard to make sure nobody is out in the cold," Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for people experiencing homelessness, promised at a news conference providing updated information about the transition. "We have room for everybody, and we’ll make sure through outreach ... that we open the doors and we welcome people into either the overflow or the warming center.”

Officials plan to provide overflow space for men at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, to offer women hotel and motel vouchers and to make use of 79 new treatment beds recently made available by Odyssey House. They will also use the Weigand Center as a 24-hour warming and intake center in an effort to help people get into any vacant beds in the evenings.

On Wednesday night, there were about 181 men staying in the downtown resource center, 240 at the new men’s shelter in South Salt Lake and five at St. Vincent’s, according to Jonathan Hardy, director of the state division of Housing and Community Development. If those numbers stayed consistent Thursday night, that would mean a deficiency of space for about 68 men, when taking into consideration the overflow for 58 people at St. Vincent’s.

The warming center will be open Thursday night, with room for about 100 people if needed, according to the state Department of Workforce Services.

To free up space in the shelters, state leaders and others involved in the transition are also engaged in a four-week housing push to move people off the streets and into permanent housing.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) People board a bus outside the Road Home as they move to the new men's resource center on 3300 South on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. The Road Home will be closed soon.

Twelve people have been housed as part of that campaign, city officials announced Thursday, and an additional 34 people are in the pipeline to move into housing over the next two weeks. Another 23 are in the process of applying for funding for housing, according to David Litvack, deputy chief of staff in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office.

“The numbers themselves don’t speak to the amount of work it took to accomplish that,” he said Thursday, praising the work of service providers, people experiencing homelessness and city, state and Salt Lake County staff to reach their goals.

The state has allocated up to $1 million to the housing effort, and Salt Lake City is using $436,000 of that funding to hire more case managers, provide rental assistance, offer emergency housing assistance and open a housing retention fund.

More than 20 landlords have responded to transition leaders’ call to help people get off the streets, but there is still a need for one-bedroom and studio apartments, Litvack said.

Concerned community members have protested in recent weeks over the closure of The Road Home, which had been scheduled to shut down this summer but faced a series of delays due to rainy weather, a construction funding shortfall and challenges getting the necessary approvals for construction in South Salt Lake.

Critics of the move argued that keeping the emergency shelter open at least through the winter was the most effective way to make sure the rocky transition to a new system wouldn’t negatively impact members of the homeless community.

State officials have countered, though, that The Road Home shelter would be an inefficient and potentially unsafe overflow solution going forward, since it would be difficult to staff and monitor the spacious building.

Protesters have also called for leaders to replace all the emergency shelter spots that will disappear with The Road Home’s closure, stop writing camping tickets until those additional beds are created, increase the occupancy caps at the three resource centers, and provide free public transit fare for everyone staying at a shelter.

While some men have been “delighted” to go to the new South Salt Lake shelter, Atkinson said Thursday that the transition has been difficult for some of the men in the system.

“That was their community and if you think of the word community, it means two words actually: It’s common unity and they had much in common,” she said. “That was their family and we were saying to them, ‘So sorry, you have to move. We have to break you up. But you can form new communities out at the new resource center.’”

Clients at the new centers have access to breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; and housing assessments, among other amenities. Atkinson said they’re also “conducive to healing," with lots of light and fewer people in each facility.

Some homeless men have expressed concern about their transportation options at the South Salt Lake shelter, which is located far from the services they’ve come to rely on and outside the transit free-fare zone. Transition officials are currently offering a transportation pilot program to address some of those concerns.

The downtown shelter will close entirely next week after The Road Home staff has fully moved out.

Jim Russell, the state’s director of facilities construction and management, could not be reached for an immediate comment Thursday about whether The Road Home had been listed for sale.

He told The Salt Lake Tribune last month that the plan is to demolish the building once it’s cleared out and to clean up any hazardous materials before selling it at an asking price of about $4.2 million. Two potential buyers had emerged at that time, he said, both of them interested in constructing mixed-use buildings with restaurants or stores on the ground floor and offices on the upper floors.

Editors note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.