As the street camping population in Utah’s capital city appears to have risen to levels higher “than we’ve seen I think ever in the past,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said that she sees a need for additional shelter space in the state.
That call comes after years of community concerns over capacity in the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers, which were built with space for 400 fewer people than could fit in the now-demolished Road Home shelter in the downtown Rio Grande neighborhood.
And it follows two winters of Band-Aid solutions from government leaders and service providers who have been left scrambling to find overflow space for people who couldn’t fit in the new $63 million shelters during the cold weather months.
“I believe we do need another shelter in Utah,” Mendenhall said during a wide-ranging meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board on Tuesday that touched frequently on homelessness. “The anecdotal experiences — we hear it from the partners with the Community Commitment Program and at the doors of the resource centers themselves — is that the need is greater. There are more people on the street.”
Capacity concerns have long plagued the Salt Lake City area’s new homeless resource centers, which began showing early signs of strain soon after they opened in fall 2019. The lack of space sparked multiple high-profile protests last year, 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.
Solutions have fallen often on the shoulders of Salt Lake City leaders, who have taken on the task of opening temporary winter overflow shelters in the capital city for two years in a row in an effort to keep people off the streets. Millcreek also stepped up to open a temporary overflow facility this year.
Amid “very strong population growth,” Mendenhall anticipates that the demand for homeless services in Utah will likely only grow — “unless we make a greater investment and focus on that stabilization of families and individuals before they have to enter the doors of the homeless resource center.”
“As a city, we are doing that now,” she said. “I would love to see a greater emphasis on those resources throughout the state.”
The need to prioritize emergency shelter in Utah has sapped money from 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.
After service providers have spent the last two years working with government leaders to find stopgap solutions for emergency shelter, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has begun exploring longer-term solutions. And Jean Hill, co-chair of the coalition, said Tuesday that she agreed with Mendenhall’s assessment of the shelter needs in the city.
“We need a long-term overflow shelter solution so we don’t have to scramble every winter and could also give people a place to stay cool and safe in the summer,” she said.
Getting there won’t be easy, though, with obstacles that include finding the money, the political will and a welcoming community.
In the meantime, Mendenhall said Tuesday that the city has worked with service providers to ensure the ballooning numbers of people experiencing homelessness who are sleeping on the streets have access to resources.
Community groups, in conjunction with the city, used to host a resource fair one day each year at the Salt Palace Convention Center, where people experiencing homelessness could get a driver license or other important documents, learn about housing and shelter opportunities and take care of any warrants or legal proceedings.
But under the mayor’s Community Commitment Program, which began last fall, “we’ve taken that one-day service and mobilized it out to where the large encampments are in the city,” Mendenhall noted.
Through that process, which involves 14 service providers, Mendenhall said half of the 130 or so people who have been offered a bed at a shelter or detox facility have accepted. And two people who were identified as having been victims of human trafficking were able to connect with resources.
Mendenhall said she will be asking the city to provide funds for the Community Commitment Program in its next budget cycle to make it a permanent fixture.
The city held one of these resource fairs in the Rio Grande area on Tuesday, ahead of a Salt Lake County encampment cleanup planned for later this week, after which the city said it will close the space to camping.
There, people experiencing homelessness had access to the typical offerings — including housing opportunities and referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment — as well as to the coronavirus vaccine. City staff said 29 people received a dose of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine through that process.
Editor’s note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.