Tribune Editorial: Keep the Rio Grande shelter open this winter

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather outside the men's side entrance to the Road Home in Salt Lake City at the end of the day on Wed. Oct. 30, 2019.

“Experiment with your own lives, damn it!”

— Dr. Charles Dutton, in “The Andromeda Strain

In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez arrived on the shores of what is now Mexico in search of gold, territory and glory.

According to legend, once ashore in Yucatan, Cortez gave the order to burn his ships as a way of ensuring that none in his party would seek to return to the relative security of Cuba, or even back to Spain, before they had fulfilled their mission.

The desire of some state and local officials and business leaders to be done with the emergency shelter model of serving Salt Lake City’s homeless population and move to an approach that stresses real, long-term housing is something that, in years to come, we may well look back on as a major accomplishment.

But not right now.

Not this month, with temperatures plummeting and the replacement system of service centers for the homeless still not fully up and running.

The idea of shutting down the homeless shelter on Rio Grande Street this fall is not resolute. It is foolish, if not downright cruel, to the point of being deadly for some human beings.

After a closed-door meeting of many of those involved in the transition plan, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox emerged to make one thing clear. That the plan to close the shelter long operated by The Road Home charitable organization would go ahead.

That the goal of shuttering the only thing that has long stood between some of the most vulnerable among us and literally freezing to death on the streets of wealthy and vibrant Salt Lake City was not going to be deterred.

The problem with the idea of closing the emergency shelter is that, damn it, it’s an emergency.

It has always been clear to anyone who was paying attention that replacing a central shelter with a capacity of some 1,100 souls with three service centers that, among them, have room for 700 was only going to work — if it is going to work — with some intensive efforts to place some people in real housing as quickly as possible and to intervene early enough in the situation of others to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.


But closing the Rio Grande facility while the new system is still getting its legs under it is risky. Very risky. Like trying to fix a flat tire while the car is still moving. At 70 mph. At night. In the snow.

The relevant officials stress that no one will be left to freeze on the streets. The Rio Grande shelter is not slated to close until after the third service center is operational. And that no effort will be spared to place the overflow population somewhere — other shelters, motel rooms, treatment facilities, somewhere.

In any event, this is not a drill. It is not a laboratory experiment or a doctoral dissertation in public policy theory. This is not a group of armored soldiers being denied a path of retreat as a way of making them go forward.

This is a situation where some of the most vulnerable people you can imagine — many of them mentally ill, addicted to drugs or otherwise unable to care for themselves — are far too likely to find themselves on the street, in freezing conditions, just so the powers that be can claim they stuck to their plan.

Throwing $1 million at a makeshift plan that counts on the generosity of local landlords and the use of fleabag motels to make more housing available threatens to become a cruel joke, and is further evidence that this whole plan has not been thoroughly thought through. If Salt Lake City had enough landlords who were willing to step up and help, we wouldn’t be in this fix to begin with.

That the true motivation for the whole plan was primarily to clear the Rio Grande area of those pesky, smelly homeless people so that the neighborhood can accommodate the next wave of $1,600-a-month gentrification.

Keep the shelter open.