Editor’s note: This story contains a disturbing image.
Feeling the pinch of a national labor shortage, Salt Lake County’s homeless nonprofits say staffing shortages are delaying the opening of winter shelter space to keep people off the frigid streets.
The Road Home, one of the county’s primary homeless service providers, needs to hire about 30 new employees to staff a temporary 250-bed shelter on North Temple Street. Volunteers of America (VOA) Utah has had trouble recruiting six additional employees to run a smaller overflow site in the downtown area.
Both organizations say the staffing crunch has slowed their efforts to make this critical bed space available — even as last week’s snowstorm made camping outdoors more treacherous.
“How concerned am I?” said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homeless policy and outreach. “Well, if there’s a scale, I think it’s off the scale.”
Shakira Carmona, a housing advocate for The Road Home, said she’s been struggling to sleep since finding an unsheltered man in distress outside her workplace last week.
She’d been near the employee entrance at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, a building used as a winter overflow space, shortly before 5 a.m. Wednesday when she heard someone whimpering just outside the gate. A co-worker discovered the sound was coming from a man buried in snow, huddled against the sidewalk.
The blankets over the man were crisp with cold, Carmona said, and his clothes were drenched in icy water.
She stuffed hand warmers in the man’s gloves and beanie and tried to reassure him, but he was barely responsive. Though his eyes were open, he wasn’t blinking or moving.
Carmona isn’t sure what happened to the man after paramedics took him away in an ambulance. She wasn’t able to get his name and can only estimate that he was in his 40s or 50s.
“I don’t know if he survived,” she said. “I have no way of knowing if he’s OK, and I think that’s the worst part for me ... why it’s been so hard to sleep.”
Carmona said if the man had tried to come inside that night, he would’ve received shelter, and she wants other people to know there are resources to get them out of the cold.
State officials say the three homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County and the St. Vincent de Paul facility hovered near maximum capacity the week before the snowstorm. But while hotel and motel vouchers are available for others who need shelter, homeless resource providers say they’re still frustrated they don’t have all their winter overflow options in place by now.
The Road Home and VOA have been partnering to get more temporary shelter space online as soon as possible and were able to open the smaller site, the 35-bed Weigand Homeless Resource Center, for a couple of nights last week because of the inclement weather.
They don’t yet have the staff to keep it consistently open through spring but are working toward that goal, said Sue Ativalu, vice president of program operations for the VOA.
There’s also uncertainty around a plan to use a Ramada at 1659 W. North Temple St. as a 250-bed temporary shelter.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness had hoped to have the Ramada site open by Dec. 15. The Road Home’s executive director, Michelle Flynn, now estimates it’ll be January before the overflow site is up and running.
“It certainly is really hard to be in this situation at this time of the year,” she said. “We know how unsafe it is for people who are sleeping outside and in other abandoned buildings and such when we get this kind of cold weather. And so we’re doing everything we can to get staffed up and get that program open.”
The Road Home raised its minimum hourly wage from $13 to $15 in November to attract more applicants, Flynn said. But even so, resumes have been slow to come in.
The openings for case managers, housing advocates, program managers and more are “great opportunities,” she said.
However, a job in homeless services can be difficult, she said, and COVID-19 added another layer by discouraging many people from working in congregate settings. And nonprofits dependent on donations and grants often have less power to increase wages than private-sector employers, Flynn added.
Ativalu said the pandemic has underscored the importance of community investment in this front line work.
“We have a staff that are really passionate and compassionate for our vulnerable populations,” she said. “More and more so, we really need to compensate people for the work that they do, and it’s such important work.”
The late-coming designation of the Ramada site as a temporary shelter compounded the challenges already posed by a tight labor market, service providers say.
This is the third winter in a row that homeless system leaders have been scrambling to find overflow space to accommodate people when Salt Lake County’s three permanent adult resource centers fill up. Bed shortages have been dogging the system since the 2019 closure of The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter, which had space for nearly 400 more people than the resource centers can collectively hold.
Salt Lake City leaders have been objecting that the burden for finding stopgap solutions has fallen primarily on them for the last few years and implored other surrounding cities to step up this winter.
But ultimately, in mid-November, the City Council agreed to a temporary shelter site in the Ramada after concluding they couldn’t just let individuals experiencing homelessness freeze outdoors in the absence of other solutions.
“I am frustrated beyond belief,” Council Chair Amy Fowler said during the November meeting. “It sometimes feels as if our compassion is taken advantage of.”
An annual homeless persons’ memorial vigil is scheduled for Tuesday in Salt Lake City, during which organizers will once again read the names of unsheltered people who died over the past year, Johnston noted.
“It’s incredibly frustrating as a social worker and somebody who’s in this community to see us replay that year in and year out. It’s on me, it’s on you, it’s on everyone,” he said. “This is not new. It’s tragic.”