If Salt Lake County can’t agree on winter homeless shelters, state says it will step in

“We have got to be better,” Utah lawmaker says of annual hunt for temporary shelter space.

Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Ramada Inn on North Temple, is now open as a segregated shelter for older and medically vulnerable individuals, Monday, January 31, 2022.

After years of conflict over where to put winter overflow shelters, a new proposal would require Salt Lake County’s cities to work together on finding extra beds for the unsheltered — or risk having the state step in and do it for them.

Space shortages have plagued the region’s homeless resource centers in recent years, forcing providers to scramble each winter for stopgap solutions to keep people out of the elements. Now, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is trying to create a more structured process for opening these overflow shelters and compel more cities to contribute to solving a regional problem.

“I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a silver bullet on this issue,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, who choked up as he presented HB440 in the Senate on Thursday. “What I do know is that regardless of political affiliation, regardless of ideology, regardless of where we come from, the best solution for the homeless is caring and stepping up to do your part.”

The bill, which passed both chambers Thursday and now awaits the governor’s signature, would require all of Salt Lake County’s city leaders to develop a winter overflow plan and submit it to the Utah Office of Homeless Services by Sept. 1 of each year.

Their proposal should comply with all local zoning requirements, have support from the mayor of the cities that would host the temporary sites and provide enough extra space to guarantee that no one would be turned away from shelter from October through April, according to the language.

If local leaders miss the deadline or submit an inadequate plan, state officials could take charge.

In that case, the state’s homeless services office could contract with a provider to open temporary overflow space inside the county. Cities additionally might have to lift the capacity limits at their permanent shelters and could not stop a provider from opening a winter facility in a building it owned, according to the bill.

Altogether, these overflow shelters could supply up to 230 additional beds, the bill states.

State officials do their best to use a hotel or motel for temporary overflow and generally would not pick a location within a mile of an existing shelter or close to community sites or homes. They would also avoid choosing a city that had already accommodated a winter shelter within the past three years.

The legislation passed in the House and Senate over objections from several lawmakers who worried about how it would impact communities and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Sen. Todd Weiler noted that in overflow shelters, people often sleep packed together on floor mats and have little space for their belongings or pets. To get away from that type of system, he added, the state closed down the old Road Home emergency shelter in late 2019 and opened three smaller resource centers where people had their own beds and access to more services.

“But as we flex, as we force these shelters to expand, it is kind of a step in the wrong direction,” Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said. “It’s a step back toward that warehouse model that we tried to abandon.”

And he pointed out that as part of building community buy-in for the new resource centers, officials promised the facilities would come with strict capacity limits. The women’s shelter and coed shelter in Salt Lake City are capped at 200 people each, while the men’s center in South Salt Lake can accept up to 300.

But under certain conditions, the bill would force communities to break their commitment to residents and ignore those capacity limits, Weiler said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said her constituents are exhausted after several winters of stepping up to provide additional emergency shelter on top of the resource centers already located in their community.

“They’ve been the more compassionate group of people in helping others,” she said. “We’ve asked for a break in Salt Lake City, especially the west side. My constituents don’t want this.”

Officials in Salt Lake City, the epicenter of homeless services in the state, have for several years complained that they shoulder the primary responsibility for finding winter overflow space and have called on other cities to do more.

Anderegg, R-Lehi, says HB440 sets out to do just that by encouraging communities across the county to help Salt Lake City find solutions to this yearly problem.

This winter’s overflow shelter didn’t fully open until February due to political pushback and labor shortages that prevented service providers from staffing up. The senator referenced news reports from December about a homeless man who was found buried in a snowy sidewalk and had to be rushed to the hospital.

“We have got to be better,” he said.

In addition to addressing overflow shelter, HB440 would also tweak the process for doling out funds to communities to manage the impacts of homeless facilities and would set aside $5.8 million to pay off the debt for the construction of the three resource centers.