Utah’s new homeless centers are safer than the closed Road Home, but drugs still a problem, audit says

Officials advise tighter screening processes and using drug-sniffing dogs to weed out contraband.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Shelter the Homeless and Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS) holds a public open house at the Gail Miller Resource Center on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Pictured is the women's dorm with 40 beds.

The lawlessness that once pervaded The Road Home’s now-shuttered downtown emergency shelter isn’t as rampant in the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers. But drug use and crime persist as a problem within the facilities, state auditors have concluded.

When auditors visited the men’s resource center in South Salt Lake, accompanying police officers noticed the smell of spice, a synthetic drug, before they’d even walked through its doors. Inside, auditors watched as a man slumped over in a stupor after smoking spice and noticed another resident furtively discard drug paraphernalia after he spotted the incoming officers, according to the legislative report released Monday.

Over the course of several trips to the resource centers, the officials found a spice joint, pipe and used syringe in or around the buildings.

“Although we believe things have greatly improved, we still found some problems with drug use, theft, assault and other kinds of criminal activity in the resource centers,” noted Brian Dean, deputy auditor general, in a briefing on the report to the state Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Monday.

Dean said it’s unrealistic to expect the centers to completely eradicate these issues, since “residents in our homeless resource centers suffer from drug addiction, mental illness and some of them have extensive criminal records.”

But the report released Monday suggests that the facilities could do more to stop criminal activity, and says that drug-sniffing dogs, more security staffing and a stricter response to violations could make the facilities safer.

The report also found that many individuals experiencing homelessness are “languishing in the resource centers,” as they grapple with addictions or mental health issues that the state doesn’t currently have the capacity to treat. The lack of options for these individuals can, in turn, make it harder to maintain order inside the shelters, according to the audit.

“We found that a majority of the residents at [the centers] face serious barriers to overcoming homelessness,” the auditors wrote. “Lacking treatment for addictions and mental illness, many residents find it difficult to comply with [center] rules such as not using drugs in the facility.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shelter the Homeless and Catholic Community Services of Utah (CCS) holds a public open house at the Gail Miller Resource Center on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, with self-guided tours for the public to see the brand new building and learn about the services that will be provided there for both men and women.

Progress and problems

Legislative auditors released the report as a follow-up to a 2018 investigation that raised alarm about people shooting up on heroin and overdosing inside The Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. That facility has since closed and given way to three smaller resource centers that opened in 2019, as the state sought to shift to a new model for aiding the region’s homeless population.

In building the $63 million resource centers, state and local officials and advocates hoped to resolve some of the safety concerns raised in the 2018 audit and also to connect people with the case management and job and housing services that could help them exit homelessness.

Auditors found that the new centers do seem more secure, with better coordination between service providers and law enforcement and stronger safety policies. The security guards who screen people as they arrive — directing them through metal detectors, searching bags and backpacks and conducting “limited pat down searches” — often stop weapons or drugs from entering the buildings, the report states.

People who are staying at the centers have access to storage bins where they can lock away their personal belongings to prevent theft, and numerous cameras and observation rooms in the dorm areas help staff monitor these spaces.

“I was in your chair when we got the first audit, and it was a scathing audit of the resource centers,” said Wayne Niederhauser, the former Senate president and the state’s new homeless services coordinator, in response to the report. “And so we’re just very happy that there’s been tremendous improvement made.”

Auditors found, though, that contraband is still finding its way into the buildings. Resource center reports examined by the auditors documented at least 36 drug-related incidents inside the South Salt Lake facility from September through November and a combined total of 11 weapons incidents inside all three shelters.

“Considering the screening and search procedures used at the entryway to each facility, along with the use of a magnetometer, it is unclear how contraband enters the [centers],” the report states. “Some residents told us that their fellow guests are hiding the material inside their clothing in places that are not searched by security.”

The resource centers could improve in screening consistency, according to the auditors, who said security guards and staff are “sometimes not as thorough as they should be” in searching people as they arrive. The state officials recommended reevaluating the number of security guards and staff at the facilities and deploying drug-sniffing dogs at “random and unannounced times” as a way to weed out more of the contraband.

The auditors also noticed that the resource centers rarely impose the recommended sanctions for clients found possessing drugs, with the guidelines proposing a 30-day eviction for a first offense and a 90-day eviction for a second violation.

“If that is the policy, we would expect it to be applied in a majority of cases,” the report states.

Instead, many violators received “nothing more than a verbal warning” or simply had to leave the building for a couple of hours, the auditors noticed after observing practices at the men’s resource center.

House Minority Leader Brian King said he thought that was a key recommendation in the audit, and he encouraged Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the resource centers, to pay “particular attention” to it.

“I think when you have the kind of disparity that’s been identified here, what you do is encourage a general disrespect and disregard for rules and the facility,” he said. “And if people know yeah, there’s what’s on the books and there’s what actually happens and there’s a big gap between the two, that’s not a productive or healthy environment.”

The challenge in sticking to the eviction guidelines, auditors concede, is that there’s often nowhere else for these individuals to go.

“Ideally, residents found using drugs or committing criminal acts would not be returned to the streets but instead redirected to a more appropriate residential treatment facility or a low barrier alternative to a resource center,” the report states. “However, those options are limited.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Gail Miller Resource Center, seen here on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, is one of the new homeless resource centers built to replace the Road Home.

No ‘exit strategy’

The lack of treatment beds and housing options leave many people stuck in the resource centers long-term, with significant barriers to finding housing, according to the audit.

Long shelter stays conflict with the state’s vision that the resource centers would be brief stopping points, the report stated. However, a quick return to housing is often out of reach for people with criminal records or untreated mental health and substance use issues.

Auditors found that of the 271 men at the South Salt Lake shelter on one December night, 61% had experienced a drug or mental health problem over the prior five years.

“That means many residents at the men’s resource center face serious obstacles to ending their homelessness,” the report states, adding that many “may require years of additional treatment before they will be able to function independently.”

Without a “good exit strategy” to move people off the streets, Niederhauser said Monday that “we won’t be able to build enough resource centers to handle all the need out there.”

“And so what seems to be, at least for me at this point, one of the objectives that we should have is getting people that come into the resource center out of the resource center as quickly as possible into some kind of permanent situation,” he said.

But until more resources are available, the three centers will continue to need governmental and nonprofit assistance as they accommodate these high-needs individuals, the report states.

The resource centers recently celebrated a major milestone in generating community support, by announcing that they’d successfully raised more than $10 million in donations and would receive a matching $10 million from the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation.

The centers “are part of a broader system to serve our community,” noted Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless. “And we look forward to partnering with the community for increased options to address affordable housing, mental health and addiction issues, among others.”

Hopkins said she and the service providers that own and operate the facilities agreed with many of the audit’s recommendations and laid out their plans for following them. The goal of the resource centers, they noted in their official response to the audit, is to “make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

Niederhauser praised the auditors for helping improve processes within the homeless system, and indicated that it could help with future funding decisions.

“As we go forward in years to come, we’ll be able to include these kinds of recommendations, because we control budgets for the resource center at least with state funds,” he said.