Coronavirus, earthquake overburdening Salt Lake County’s homeless resource system

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews at the scene of damage after an earthquake in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

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When the ground stopped shaking after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck the Wasatch Front on Wednesday, a pile of bricks lined the street outside the Salt Lake City Rescue Mission and the 140 or so people who’d sought shelter there found themselves homeless once again.

As the faith-based organization worked to assess the damage to its building, its immediate plan was to temporarily house 50 of the displaced individuals in the Ogden Rescue Mission up north.

But by the end of the day, the Ogden fire marshal had turned them away amid concerns about capacity within the facility — even as the Mission sought unsuccessfully to use an emergency declaration from Mayor Mike Caldwell to allow the building to accommodate a few extra bodies.

“They maintained that they had to enforce the 66-bed capacity,” Chris Croswhite, the mission’s executive director, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. “And we obeyed that decision.”

In addition to worries about the safety of those in the building amid an outbreak of the coronavirus, leaders in Weber County also expressed trepidation about taking on an added burden as they attempt to help the rapidly increasing number of people experiencing homelessness in their own community.

“They viewed this as me trying to shift a Salt Lake City homeless situation and Salt Lake County homeless situation to an Ogden City homeless issue and Weber County homeless issue,” Croswhite said, noting that while he respects their decision, he was not seeking any governmental assistance in caring for the displaced individuals.

[Read more: Utah’s first coronavirus death was a Davis County man over age 60]

Mike Mathieu, Ogden’s fire chief, told The Tribune on Friday that he understood the need to find additional housing for people experiencing homelessness but couldn’t in good conscience “look the other way" and allow the Mission to flout the fire code regulations — particularly after a fire in the basement at the facility in January.

“When you overcrowd a facility,” he said, “you can potentially lose a lot of lives.”

And that’s without taking into consideration the reality that this population is already “at high risk for communicable diseases,” Mathieu said.

“It’s totally illogical to me to think we would take a high-risk population group and concentrate them,” he said.

Emergency shelter

The inability to find room in Ogden to house the homeless displaced by the earthquake set off a scramble to find shelter in the Salt Lake City area, where the homeless system is already stretched to capacity.

Fortunately, the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office, in conjunction with Salt Lake City leaders, was able to “virtually immediately” secure a temporary shelter spot for the Mission’s homeless clients in a building it owns, Croswhite said.

“Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County came to the rescue of the Rescue Mission,” Croswhite said. “That’s the honest fact.”

The 52 homeless individuals are staying at the Marv Jensen Recreation Center in South Jordan, the city confirmed in a post on its website on Saturday. The building was closed last year because it needed costly repairs.

County officials had previously declined to provide the location of the shelter.

[Read more: Utah’s earthquake took its toll on at least 77 historic buildings]

Others who were staying at the Rescue Mission before Wednesday have found shelter with family or friends, sought services within the three new homeless resource centers and at Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Day Center, or opted to sleep on the streets, Croswhite said.

The mission director said it’s unclear how soon the building will be operational again or how much it would cost to get there, noting that he was seeking community donations to cover repairs. A city inspector went through the building Thursday and Croswhite said he should know in the coming days whether the Mission can occupy part of the building as it’s restored to bring “the majority of our emergency services back online” faster.

“In the meantime, we’re actively operating our recovery program out of the county facility,” he said, as well as providing homeless clients with three meals a day and nightly shelter space.

The temporary closure of the Rescue Mission is one of several conditions that has put an increased burden on Catholic Community Services, which operates a day shelter in the Rio Grande area and one of three new resource centers for people experiencing homelessness.

At the same time the organization is seeing an increased demand for services from those who were displaced by the earthquake, it’s also facing a staffing shortage that has the nonprofit running in “crisis operation mode,” according to Matthew Melville, the organization’s homeless services director.

‘Crisis mode’

“We’re operating to keep the doors open,” he told The Tribune in an interview on Thursday. “It’s definitely not sustainable.” None of the staffers at the facilities the organization runs has exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus. But Melville said dozens of employees who are part of vulnerable groups, such as older populations and people with at-risk health conditions, are staying home for their own protection.

With such limited human resources, those who remain have been working double shifts to keep their homeless services running, Melville said, noting that in the past few days he’s taken on graveyard shifts and manned the front desks.

The new homeless resource centers, which opened late last year, were pitched as a way to better move people experiencing homelessness off the streets for good, shifting from a warehousing model to a full suite of services, including breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; and housing assessments, among other amenities.

But conditions have become so challenging that the Gail Miller Resource Center has had to limit the very resources that are meant to help people exit homelessness.

“We’re basically meeting the basic needs right now with a very, very limited amount of staff,” Melville said. “We would obviously like to do more, but we’re focusing on the basics — making sure people have food, shelter and a clean environment.”

Melville said case management and employment services have been limited and those employees have been asked to fill in elsewhere, including sanitizing surfaces in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Housing help has stopped for all but those who already have paperwork in the pipeline, he said.

Catholic Community Services is in conversations with county, state and city leaders “to see what they can do to help with staffing and easing some of that burden on our staff right now,” Melville said, hoping a solution comes to light sooner than later.

“It makes it very very very challenging to continue an operation when a significant number of your staff members also cannot come in because it could be very dangerous for their well-being,” he added.

Both The Road Home and the Volunteers of America Utah, which operate the other resource centers in the Salt Lake City area, say they have enough staff to run their shelters but are making contingency plans as the coronavirus drags on.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said the South Salt Lake resource center has had lower staffing in the past few days as people stay home sick and has also deployed some housing case managers to help staff the front desk as needed.

As the economy takes a downward turn and with people losing their jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, she said the homeless system should brace for a potential spike in demand.

“We’re hearing positive things from leadership at the federal, state and local levels around funding to help support, for example, preventing evictions and keeping people in their housing if at all possible, so I feel like some of those measures that are coming down from the federal government now will help put that off,” she said. “But we need to be prepared because we don’t know how long this is going to last.”

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