Utah is giving homeless services $19 million to focus on emergency shelter

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Sugar House Temporary Shelter, which closed earlier this month, served up to 145 people each night.

Facing an ongoing shortage of shelter space for the homeless in Utah’s capital city, the state Homeless Coordinating Committee voted Wednesday to approve nearly $19.5 million in funding for homeless services with a priority placed on emergency shelter.

It comes at a cost, though, to initiatives like rapid rehousing, transitional housing and prevention — programs that help people who have become homeless get back on their feet or that keep them from entering homelessness in the first place.

In past years, “I don’t know that any of us would have said the emergency shelter category would have been our top priority because we know that permanent housing and housing solutions really end homelessness for individuals,” Rob Wesemann, a member of the state committee and co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said Wednesday.

“But our community recognized that we have this new system and we needed to make sure that it was stable and that it was functional,” he continued. “So that emerged as the top priority for our local community.”

Capacity concerns have plagued the Salt Lake City area’s new homeless resource centers — which have space for about 400 fewer people than could fit in The Road Home’s old emergency shelter — since their inception. And the $63 million system began showing signs of early strain in October, shortly after the first shelter opened.

This winter, the lack of space sparked multiple high-profile protests, including a campout at Salt Lake City Hall where 17 people were arrested for breaking curfew as they attempted to draw attention to the issue. A few weeks later, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall worked with homeless service providers to open a temporary emergency shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood, a 145-cot facility that closed last week.

Mendenhall, a member of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, argued at the time that the emergency shelter was a temporary fix and called for more funding for affordable housing.

"We’ve got to have housing, permanent supportive housing, case management, detox and access to all those services so we don’t have to be working in the middle of January to come up with a solution again” next year, she said.

In total, the Homeless Coordinating Committee decided at its virtual meeting Wednesday to pour some $12.5 million into emergency shelter efforts — about $10 million of which will be distributed to providers in the Salt Lake Valley area. That’s still a far cry short of the $16.5 million requested overall for that programming.

While emergency shelter took the biggest chunk of funding, rapid rehousing programming absorbed one of the biggest hits, with those programs receiving just $730,425 of the nearly $2.7 million service providers had requested. And $1.2 million in requests for homeless prevention efforts were whittled to $327,600.

Overall, the state received requests for $31.3 million in funding and was able to provide about $19.5 million for 41 agencies and 123 projects.

While the Homeless Coordinating Committee approves funding for the entire state, the Salt Lake Valley area generally receives the most in funding, and this year was no exception. About 78% of all homeless dollars will be spent there in the coming fiscal year.

Included in that funding is a potential fix for a $3 million operational budget shortfall the three homeless resource centers have faced as their costs have proven substantially higher than previously thought. The state Legislature allocated half of the needed funding to bridge that gap, but the service providers that operate the centers will need to find matching dollars before the money is released.

“We have some work to do to try to figure out how to fully fund the resource centers in the Salt Lake County area,” said Kathy Bray, CEO of Volunteers of America Utah, which runs the women’s resource center.

Other parts of the state will see far fewer resources for homeless services, despite presentations to the state from several Local Homeless Coordinating Committees earlier this year outlining an increased demand for services in their areas.

Weber County, where a recent study found homelessness has increased at a much higher rate than in the Salt Lake Valley over the past few years, will receive 6.6% of all funding, while the Mountainland area — which includes Utah, Summit and Wasatch counties — will receive 4.9% of the total share.

Heather Hogue, project manager and coordinator with the Mountainland Continuum of Care, said she would like to see money distributed with an increased eye toward geographic equity in the future.

“I would sincerely encourage in future years that we allocate more funding across the state,” she told committee members on Wednesday. “Because the need is there. We are not misusing funding in any way. And across the state, we are doing such good work with the money that we’re being given.”

One of the biggest cuts the Mountainland area saw was to its local domestic violence shelter, Hogue noted. The Center for Women and Children in Crisis had requested a little over $1 million in funding but received just $311,553.

“We know that they’re over capacity, we know that they’re turning people away, we know that they need resources and money,” Hogue said, adding later that it was difficult to “nickel and dime” service providers that are working right now to take care of the most vulnerable in the community.

And Hogue worried that private donations wouldn’t compensate for that loss, expecting a “dramatic drop” in that support as a result of the coronavirus, which has led to the closure of many businesses and a sharp downturn in the economy nationwide.

“There are so many people that would donate if they could and have donated when they can who are now looking for rental assistance services,” she said.

In determining what to fund, service providers in Local Homeless Coordinating Committees looked at gaps in their communities, as well as project priorities and the importance of specific projects in the area, according to state documents. The coordinating committee’s allocation committee then reviewed funding requests with an eye for past performance of an agency and a service provider’s capacity to take on new projects.

The recommendations then came to the State Homeless Coordinating Committee for final approval Wednesday.