Utah’s homeless providers prepare for winter problems that COVID-19 could exacerbate

Last winter presented one crisis after another for Salt Lake City’s homeless system, as temperatures dropped dangerously low and too many people sought access to too few beds in the new system of resource centers that replaced the downtown Road Home shelter.

And that was before the coronavirus hit.

This year, homeless service providers hope early planning will stave off a capacity crisis in its coldest months — even as they anticipate further complications as a result of social distancing needs and the potential for more demand for services due to the economic fallout of COVID-19.

“We don’t want to be caught off guard this time around,” said Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. “When we are caught off guard, those who are least able to deal with these rapid changes are the ones who have to pay the price.”

The coalition is currently weighing five options for this winter. Those include offering hotel vouchers; leasing existing buildings; acquiring a facility for long-term, permanent or as-needed extra beds; continuing operation of a hotel for the homeless; and maintaining a focus on housing.

A draft summary of the winter plans, which the coalition distributed Thursday, shows at least two of the coalition’s options are already a sure thing. Hotel vouchers for 80 women have already been secured, and so has the money to use St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall as an overflow space for 58 men beginning Oct. 15.

But using recent history as a guide, those options won’t be enough.

Even with those overflow centers, there were more people seeking shelter last year than there was space. The three new resources centers have space collectively for about 400 fewer people than could fit on beds and mats in The Road Home’s demolished downtown emergency shelter.

Last winter, Salt Lake City leaders opened a temporary shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood to accommodate demand. But this year, homeless service providers are anticipating a need to have more overflow options than ever, in part because of social distancing.

St. Vincent de Paul may now only be able to accommodate half as many people with cots spread out, Hill noted. And while two people usually stay in a motel room with a voucher, that may not be feasible if someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

The coalition is looking at spending federal coronavirus aid to help move people out of homeless and it is on the hunt for more money for existing facilities and the possibility of an overflow location.

Another option is keeping operational the hotel Salt Lake County opened earlier this year to protect vulnerable populations from COVID-19. It has space for 130 people over the age of 60 or with underlying health conditions.

The county’s lease with the hotel (which it has repeatedly declined to disclose the location of) currently goes through the end of August, a spokeswoman in the county mayor’s office confirmed Thursday.

Other options that homeless providers considered, but are not moving forward with, include creating a sanctioned encampment, lifting the statutory occupancy limits at the homeless resource centers and establishing a safe parking program for car camping.

Hill said the car camping and encampment options sounded doable in theory but in practice were actually more expensive than leasing a building or finding a facility for people to stay warm in because of added security costs and the need to provide restrooms.

Coalition leaders and service providers are also working to help people who have fallen on hard economic times as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, so they don’t lose their homes and further strain the homeless system.

“Statewide, providers and local homeless coordinating committees are already trying to make sure that as people face those changes, as they’re losing that [federal unemployment] money or being evicted that we are able to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place,” Hill said. “If we can get rental assistance to folks or help solve some of those hopefully short term issues up front, maybe we don’t increase our homeless population going into the cold months.”

It’s possible, though, that any of their worst-case scenarios will come to light. And Hill said homeless service providers hope they’ll be prepared to tackle whatever comes head-on.

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