The new South Salt Lake homeless shelter has empty beds, but is too far away for some

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new Men's Resource Center (MRC) in South Salt Lake, Nov. 5, 2019.

Despite ongoing concerns about space constraints within the three new homeless resource centers, officials say there are a handful of beds each night available at the 300-bed men’s shelter in South Salt Lake to take people off the streets and out of the cold.

The problem is persuading people who need a place to sleep to use them, says Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of social services for Utah Community Action, which is responsible for intake at the new resource centers.

“There are some that don’t want to access the system or are not able to, don’t know about it,” she said.

The location is far from their community and social services downtown, Dickson said — and that, combined with misconceptions about capacity, how to get to the resource center and how to get into a bed when they get there may be dissuading people from seeking shelter.

“We’re hearing from reporters and from folks on the street saying, ‘Well, the resource centers are full, full stop, period so I’m not going to try” to get in, said Christina Davis, a spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which is helping with the transition to the new homeless services system. “But that just isn’t true. There is space.”

On average, there were about 50 vacant beds out of 700 in the new system each night during the two-week period beginning the day after The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter closed on Nov. 21 through Dec. 5, according to data presented at a meeting Wednesday of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. (With 700 beds, the new system has the capacity for about 400 fewer people than could fit inside the now-boarded-up Road Home.)

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The recently closed Road Home Shelter in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

Beyond those beds, the 58 spots on mats in the overflow shelter for men at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall are full nearly every night, and there are about 60 women using hotel and motel vouchers. Davis estimated that a maximum of 120 people move each night through the 24-hour warming room at the Weigand Center, which offers people a place to get out of the cold but is not meant for sleeping.

Those who check in at the warming center are moved into empty beds at the resource centers when they’re available, Davis said.

Bill Tibbitts, an anti-poverty advocate and associate director of the Urban Crossroads Center, said he’s skeptical that everyone who occupies a chair in the warming center or is sleeping on a mat has declined a bed.

He said that he recently spoke with one man who had been sitting in a chair for four nights in a row; he hadn’t been able to sleep much and looked “exhausted."

“He looked like somebody who really needed a bed, and I think the thing that was frustrating is he absolutely wanted a bed at one of the new shelters and he had no clue what he needed to do to get one,” he said. “And I don’t understand how someone could go to the warming center for four straight nights and not know what to do if a bed was available.”

Coalition members said Wednesday they plan to do more outreach for people experiencing homelessness and that they expect kinks in the system will be worked out in the coming months.

“This is fluid,” said Jennifer Godfrey, the CEO of Utah Community Action. “It is moving hour to hour, minute to minute.”

Rob Wesemann, the executive director of the Utah National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the coalition is also working with funders and community leaders to prepare options for a potential “code blue” situation when the resource centers, overflow, the warming center and other service providers are full.

“We don’t want to wait until we hit that point to try and figure something out,” he said, but didn’t give details on what options were on the table, stressing that the conversations were preliminary.

Earlier this year, officials were looking at opening a shuttered liquor store and adjoining warehouse to potentially take homeless individuals out of the cold in case of a capacity crisis. That option was later taken off the table.

In an effort to clear up space in the shelters, Salt Lake City government officials have been working on a multiweek housing effort with the help of $1 million from the state.

David Litvack, deputy chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, told the coalition Wednesday that 32 people have been housed as part of that effort so far, with another eight in the process.

Any person in need of shelter or a resource center should call Utah Community Action’s Homeless Services Line at 801-990-9999.