Our state and local governments, private supporters and service providers are currently faced with a seminal question: Considering the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its immediate and long-term effects on Utah’s economy and budgeting system, is now the time to double down and invest more in homeless services and affordable housing?

Over the past year, we embraced a major shift in homeless service strategies in our state’s capital city and throughout Salt Lake County, where most people experiencing homelessness in Utah are living. This included a system-wide approach to focus on preventing homelessness, shortening the length of time families and individuals are living in homelessness and increasing support and moves from homelessness into permanent housing.

As part of a pledge to offer more housing and stability-focused resources, we closed the large multi-population downtown shelter (serving an average of 850 people per night) and opened three smaller resource centers (serving 700 people per night combined).

As the operator of the downtown shelter facility, The Road Home was responsible for ensuring that everyone seeking shelter had a bed each night. The trade-off with giving this responsibility to one agency was that we had a place for everyone to sleep but did not have the resources to move them into housing, let alone address needs like mental health, health care, education, income and substance-use disorders.

This new system-level goal brought together many different organizations, sparked the creation of Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (SLVCEH) and provided each stakeholder with the structure for community-wide performance measures and an understanding of how each program is helping to achieve improved community performance.

Then, we faced the COVID-19 pandemic. This health crisis forced us to look in the mirror again, only to realize our efforts to meet capacity needs for emergency shelter beds was the opposite of what was needed to keep people safe from the spread of the virus.

The intersection of health care and housing has never been clearer or more important. A safe home provides better health, better ability to engage with preventative care, a stable foundation to increase income and a connection with behavioral health support. You can’t stay safe at home if you don’t have a home.

The COVID crisis thrust many challenges upon us, but also provides an opportunity to do better. We are diverting people in the COVID high-risk category into motels to avoid the inherent risks of a congregate facility, and we have utilized stimulus funding to implement preventive protocols within the resource centers.

We also are facing a systemic economic crisis that may result in increased evictions in the months ahead and create a spike in homelessness that our system will not be able to absorb.

Investing in homelessness prevention and increasing housing affordability is a core component of the COVID-19 response and necessary to help prevent a resurgence of this pandemic in our state. We are facing a “new normal,” and we cannot revert to the old homeless service model. While the new model does cost more financially, it’s far more effective in leading to a strong, stable and healthy community.

The Road Home has never been more thankful for this new, effective system. Leaders at the state, county and city levels now have an opportunity to leverage federal dollars and invest state and local funds to support a solidly resourced, housing-focused homeless system and keep people safely housed in our communities. We hope they choose to do so.

Michelle Flynn

Michelle Flynn is executive director of The Road Home. The Road Home operated the emergency shelter on Rio Grande, now closed, and is the service provider and operator of the South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center and the Midvale Family Resource Center.