Homeless system may face further strain with closure of the temporary Sugar House shelter later this month

When Salt Lake City leaders opened an emergency shelter in Sugar House earlier this year to help people stuck in the frigid outdoors, they expected demand for the overflow space would wane with the arrival of spring.

But homeless providers now worry the coronavirus pandemic and recent earthquake will upend those normal seasonal rhythms, adding pressure to an already-strained shelter system just as that temporary center is slated to close April 15.

"In the middle of our planning for the end of winter came the coronavirus,” said Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah, which operates one of the permanent emergency shelters. "The complexity of things has gone up pretty considerably, and we are certainly concerned about having enough shelter options for people.”

Providers and government officials say they’re in conversations about how to best help the 134 or so people who stayed in the Sugar House shelter last month and will be displaced when the facility closes its doors in a few weeks.

The Salt Lake City Council could extend the temporary zoning ordinance that allowed overnight stays at the Sugar House site, which has 145 cots, to last up to a maximum of six months, through mid-June.

But David Litvack, a senior policy adviser in the mayor’s office who works on issues around homelessness, said there’s no plan to keep the shelter open longer, noting that the facility is slated to close at the same time the overflow space at St. Vincent de Paul does each year. That facility housed an average of 52 people a night last month.

Litvack said there’s also not an appetite to open a separate overflow facility to serve homeless clients at this time, since demand for shelter services typically decreases in the spring and summertime — though he acknowledged it’s not clear if that will hold true under the new resource center system.

“This is obviously a time we haven’t experienced before but we know that our numbers do go down in the spring,” he said. “And also relative to COVID-19, a lot of us have concerns that the Sugar House temporary shelter is not the ideal location in terms of how best to keep people safe, and so I think that’s definitely part of the equation as well.”

Social distancing is a challenge throughout the shelter system, but particularly at the overflow site, where dozens of people have been sleeping on mats in close quarters, said Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, which runs a resource center in South Salt Lake.

“They were structured to fill a certain need over the cold winter months,” Flynn said of the emergency overflow shelters. “They weren’t structured to operate during this kind of a health crisis.”

Litvack couldn’t say for sure whether the people who are relying on overflow shelter space will end up camping on the streets after April 15. Partners are currently examining data from a survey of overflow shelter users, and he said that will help homeless service providers better understand what’s to become of those who will be displaced.

But providers are grappling with the possibility that they might not have enough room for everyone after the overflow shelters close, Flynn said.

“As of today, I don’t know that we would have identified enough vouchers or motel rooms to be able to state that nobody will be turned away,” she said. “But I know that’s not our intention.”

On Wednesday, three homeless individuals who have been staying at the Sugar House shelter were making dreamcatchers on a blanket at Fairmont Park in hopes of making enough money to get a motel room for the night.

One of the men, a 51-year-old who identified himself as Gary and declined to give his last name, said he’s nervous about what will happen to him after April 15 — particularly because of the coronavirus.

“We’re all going to be on the street and we’re all going to get picked up and go to jail,” he speculated. “Nobody cares about us. No one at all.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Three men experiencing homelessness who are staying in the Sugar House temporary shelter, pass the time at Fairmont Park, Wednesday April 1, 2020

While there are no current plans to provide more shelter space in the Salt Lake City area, Litvack said there will be increased street outreach to ensure they meet the needs of those who were using the overflow and other unsheltered individuals in the coming weeks.

As part of those efforts, Salt Lake County announced Wednesday the creation of a new outreach program with the Volunteers of America, Utah and other partners to better serve people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus outbreak. Those street teams will consist of an outreach worker, a peer support specialist and a public health nurse.

“We’re out and having outreach workers both from a COVID-19 standpoint talking about ways to stay safe, ways to be healthy but also what outreach always does in connecting individuals to services, connecting individuals to housing,” Litvack said. “While we are absolutely very focused on the end of the overflow season and COVID-19, providers have never lost sight of housing.”

Flynn said the new street teams will focus on supporting people who choose to camp, encouraging them not to congregate in large groups and making sure they have the food and hygiene supplies they need.

The outreach isn't necessarily aimed at convincing everyone to come inside; Flynn said during the current crisis, there are benefits to camping as well as taking refuge in a shelter.

"I don't know that one is safer than the other," she said.

Coronavirus strain?

Homeless advocates have long raised concern about bed availability in the three homeless resource centers, which have space for about 400 fewer people than could fit on beds and mats in The Road Home’s now-shuttered downtown emergency shelter.

The new centers began showing signs of early strain in October, before all three had even opened. And last month’s earthquake and the coronavirus have further stretched homeless services, to the point where Catholic Community Services, which runs the 200-bed men’s and women’s center, told The Salt Lake Tribune last month that it was operating in “crisis operation mode.”

And resource center operators say the coronavirus could force more people into homelessness as loss of income creates housing instability and county jails release inmates to ease crowding in their facilities.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert announced he was putting a freeze on evictions until May 15 for people directly affected by coronavirus, a relief measure sought by housing advocates to prevent a surge in homelessness.

Flynn said it’s too soon to say whether housing loss or jail releases related to COVID-19 are increasing the shelter population.

But Erin Litvack, Salt Lake County deputy mayor and chief administrative officer, told the County Council on Tuesday that the homeless services system is already seeing “unprecedented demand.”

“We’re continuing to worry about capacity issues, some of the early releases happening in the jail for our low-risk offenders and some of the concerns about people being displaced,” she said.

As part of its coronavirus response, Salt Lake County is providing a space for people who are exhibiting symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19 and need to self-quarantine to avoid infecting those at the resource centers. The county has repeatedly declined to disclose the locations of those sites and did so again on Wednesday.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the county has housed a total 46 people experiencing homelessness in a quarantine facility so far and has 11 unsheltered individuals staying there currently.

“We are not aware of any confirmed cases of COVID among people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “There have been no positive tests in our quarantine facilities to date.”

The county is also providing shelter to some 52 homeless individuals who were displaced from the Salt Lake City Rescue Mission by March’s 5.7-magnitude earthquake at the Marv Jensen Recreation Center in South Jordan, which was closed last year due to the need for costly repairs.

Bray said she’s grateful there haven’t so far been any coronavirus cases in the shelters, since the illness could spread quickly among homeless individuals who don’t have the option of sequestering themselves in a house. And many shelter clients have underlying health conditions, she noted, putting them at an even higher risk.

Flynn said all three of the resource centers have been screening clients to check for symptoms of COVID-19. The South Salt Lake shelter is now ramping up these checks by taking the temperature of each person who enters, she said.

Resource center partners are also working to move higher-risk clients into more isolated living situations, such as hotel or motel rooms, but it will take systemwide cooperation and possibly additional funding to pull this off.

"We want to target everybody who fits in that category," she said.

Volunteers of America staff at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center on 700 South are checking the temperatures of clients who are showing symptoms, such as coughing or shortness of breath, Bray said.

Any women who are feverish stay in a separate room in the resource center, away from the general population, as they wait for a coronavirus test at the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health services to individuals experiencing homelessness.

About 15 people each day are coming to Fourth Street with possible coronavirus symptoms, and health care workers are checking them in a tent set up to keep these patients separate from others at the clinic, said Laurel Ingham, the clinic’s development director.

Many people are ultimately diagnosed with the flu or strep throat and don’t need to be assessed for coronavirus, Ingham said, but the clinic has tested about 50 people for COVID-19 so far. None has tested positive.

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