When Salt Lake City opened an emergency overflow shelter earlier this year as a stopgap effort to get people experiencing homelessness out of the bitter cold, Mayor Erin Mendenhall expressed a need for action to prevent similar issues in the next winter season.
“I don’t ever want to have this happen again in Salt Lake City,” she said in announcing the temporary shelter in the city’s Sugar House neighborhood. “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.”
But the city has now found itself in much the same position as it was last year, though earlier in the season and this time during a pandemic — with too many people experiencing homelessness and too few beds available for them to sleep in.
After an effort to site an overflow shelter in Midvale fell through last month, the Salt Lake City Council stepped up again and voted unanimously on Friday to open a temporary overflow emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, this time in a hotel on the city’s west side.
“Despite our efforts throughout the year to request a plan way earlier than December from the many who try to help those experiencing homelessness, once again we find ourselves voting for a winter emergency shelter at the eleventh hour,” noted Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros after the vote. “My hope is that we’re not having this same conversation again next year.”
The Band-Aid solutions for overflow shelter have become necessary since the closure of the old downtown Road Home shelter, which had space for 400 more people experiencing homelessness than fit in the three new resource centers that replaced it.
This year, the move also comes — as the temporary land ordinance the council approved Friday notes — at a time when the city’s unsheltered population has ballooned “due to the affordable housing crisis, the economic crisis and the effects of the pandemic.”
The Airport Inn Hotel, located at 2333 W. North Temple, will open up an additional 100-120 beds in the state’s homeless resource system and will be operated by Switchpoint, a homeless service provider that operates a resource center in St. George.
The site is expected to open in around two weeks and will close in April. During that time frame, the hotel will operate as a 24/7 shelter with transportation, meal service and access to other services, according to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
The hotel had previously decided to close due to the drop in travel at the Salt Lake City International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic and to implement hotel renovations, the coalition said in a news release. But the owner will now pause construction to accommodate primarily homeless couples until the spring, when the hotel will reopen.
“We are happy to work with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition during our hotel renovation to provide people a safe and warm place to stay during these winter months,” James Yin of the Airport Inn Hotel said in a statement.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness announced earlier this month that it had worked with the city of Millcreek to site an overflow shelter in the former Osmond Senior Living Memory Care facility on 3300 South. That location has 60 to 75 beds.
The coalition had also been considering an overflow shelter in Midvale — but that effort was scrapped last month after Mayor Robert Hale came out against the facility, arguing that his city, which is home to the county’s homeless family shelter, had done more than its share to help the unsheltered.
That left Salt Lake City to step up.
City Councilman Andrew Johnston noted Friday that even with the opening of the Millcreek temporary overflow shelter, an estimated 120 people would be sleeping on the streets with no option for a bed.
“As a city, we face the choice of approving this temporary ordinance or allowing these men and women to remain outside in the snow,” he added.
Johnston said he voted in favor of the facility because overflow shelter “is desperately needed.” But he noted that the city and the lower-income west side neighbors have done more than their share in addressing homelessness.
“By my count, excluding domestic violence and private facilities, which if they were included would increase this number, Salt Lake City will host seven of the 10 sites for homeless services this winter,” he said. “Effectively all of them are on or west of State Street. We continue to step up and say yes even when it’s difficult and unfair. It is well past time for other leaders to do the same.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall struck a similar chord in a statement, noting that the city has gone “above and beyond” to help people experiencing homelessness and that the current system for determining overflow space “is dysfunctional and a disservice to the service providers, residents and businesses in the area, and most of all, to individuals experiencing homelessness.”
“I empathize with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, which has been given the charge by the state Legislature to secure winter shelter without the staffing, funding, or authority to actually do so,” she added. “It’s an untenable situation that is set up to fail. We must do better. All of our government partners must be willing to do their part.”
Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness co-chair Jean Hill said in a news release Friday that she was grateful to Salt Lake City “for once again stepping up to support the state’s unsheltered population through the winter months.”
”And we are so thankful to the owner of the Airport Inn Hotel for coming to the table with a creative solution to the winter shelter needs,” she added. “The need for sufficient winter shelter in Utah is a responsibility leaders statewide play a role in.”
Homeless leaders began planning for winter capacity issues this summer, but the coronavirus has further complicated overflow needs within the shelter system that became evident within the Salt Lake Valley’s three new homeless resource centers when they opened last year.
This year, overflow options will include 80 hotel vouchers and continuing operation of the Stay Safe, Stay Home Hotel for the homeless, an undisclosed location that has space for 130 people. St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City is also currently serving as an overflow space with room for 40 to 60 people experiencing homelessness.
The coalition continues to look for longer-term solutions to capacity issues for subsequent winters.
Editor’s note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.