LOCAL NEWS

Are there enough shelter beds available for Utah’s homeless this winter?

Nov 10, 2022, 10:50 AM | Updated: Nov 18, 2022, 5:31 pm
Luis Perez, Volunteers of America shift lead, sets up overflow beds for the homeless in the Weigand...
Luis Perez, Volunteers of America shift lead, sets up overflow beds for the homeless in the Weigand Center for the Weigand Winter Overflow in Salt Lake City on Jan. 10. This week's winter storm brought with it the first real test of a new state law requiring cities to come together and submit a plan for summer and winter overflow to the Utah Office of Homeless Services. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — As an anticipated winter storm rolled through the Wasatch Front this week, it brought with it the first real test of a new state law requiring cities to come together and submit a plan for summer and winter overflow to the Utah Office of Homeless Services.

In previous years, city leaders and resource providers have scrambled to bring enough temporary winter overflow shelters online before the first snowfall.

That scrambling — and failure to provide the number of beds recommended by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness — prompted HB440 earlier this year. Many city officials and mayors raised concerns about the bill, saying it would strain resources while also conceding that collaboration between cities was needed.

Ultimately, the bill passed, requiring city officials and leaders to reconvene in conversations and coordinate a plan. That plan identified the former Calvin Smith Library in Millcreek as a location for temporary winter overflow but failed to identify other locations.

Despite not finding the 400 needed beds outlined by the coalition to end homelessness, city leaders submitted the plan to the Utah Office of Homeless Services. The insufficient plan triggered the state’s ability to flex capacity at existing resource centers and used state-owned facilities for overflow, a point of concern from the start for Salt Lake City officials.

“They have signaled their intention to pursue using their idea of the Millcreek location, along with using state preemption for the current resource center sites to increase the capacity and those by 25%. They have talked to the providers, they’re talking to us as a city because it would require us to do certain things to allow that,” Salt Lake City’s Homeless Policy and Outreach director Andrew Johnston told the Salt Lake City Council at the time.

“Is there any way we can advocate for a flex that doesn’t reach that full 25%?” Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler asked. “I totally get that we’re in this position and we don’t want anyone to be cold. But I also get that my predecessors on this council worked really hard to earn the trust of those communities, and I want to violate that trust as minimally as possible.”

The full flex may not be exercised and will be adjusted based on demands, according to Johnston. The anticipated demand is hard to measure and is based on last winter’s numbers and the decrease in motel beds available, bringing the highest estimate to 400.

“That doesn’t include families, which is a whole different pressure point right now,” Johnston added.

The temporary winter overflow plan is anticipated to provide 340 winter overflow beds in Salt Lake County, as follows:

  • Calvin Smith Library: 100 beds
  • St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall: 65 beds
  • Pamela Atkinson Resource Center: 75 beds
  • Gail Miller Resource Center: 50 beds
  • Geraldine E. King Resource Center: 50 beds

Officials did not find the additional 60 beds needed to meet the high estimate of 400.

The winter overflow plan began operating on Nov. 1.

“We have room, so none of the facilities have been full yet. … We really want that word to get out for people who are in need of shelter, as this stormy weather that we’re having, to please know that there is shelter available,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home, which manages the homeless resource centers.

Transportation is being provided to those contacted by street outreach teams and those taken to the Millcreek location. People who stay overnight in Millcreek will be offered transportation back to Salt Lake City the next morning.

We have room, so none of the facilities have been full yet…. We really want that word to get out for people who are in need of shelter, as this stormy weather that we’re having, to please know that there is shelter available. — Michelle Flynn, The Road Home

The process has been really complex planning with the transportation so that those additional beds, the flex beds as well as the facility in Millcreek, they’re only utilized at nighttime,” Flynn said.

While the new homelessness law could be regarded as an improvement over previous years, conversations are ongoing.

“This setup, this process — and (we’re) trying to make it even better for subsequent years, because I think most folks would say this is not necessarily a bad deal — but it was one step forward … so I think we got to keep getting better at it,” Johnston said.

Flynn agreed, encouraging all cities in Salt Lake County to “take it to the next step” by identifying what they can offer, which “may not be shelter but definitely can be deeply affordable and supportive housing.”

“I’m really hoping to see that that ends up being some of the next steps, where cities are taking an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s how we’re contributing to this growing need in our community, to the growing population across the entire state,” she said.

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Are there enough shelter beds available for Utah’s homeless this winter?