County opens warming center after Salt Lake homeless advocates build unsanctioned tent

Jan 31, 2023, 12:27 PM | Updated: 7:15 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The makeshift door of the tent shifted with hesitation, before being fully pushed aside by cold fingers as an unsheltered person entered to seek warmth Monday afternoon.

A wind chill warning issued by the National Weather Service of Salt Lake City on Saturday predicted dangerously cold temperatures; the warning remains in effect until Tuesday morning but may be extended based on weather conditions. Along the northern Wasatch Front, wind chill values were expected to reach 10 degrees below zero Monday night; in Salt Lake and Utah counties, the wind chill was forecast between zero and 10 degrees.

The freezing temperatures and wind chill pose an increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite. The weather service advised people to limit time outside, wear appropriate clothing and pack vehicles with emergency supplies.

“Unsheltered populations are especially vulnerable to extreme cold,” weather service officials noted in a tweet.

It hovered around 20 degrees in Salt Lake City on Monday as homeless advocates began to prepare for the evening. Advocates say that there are few winter overflow beds available, leaving the unsheltered population vulnerable to the cold with limited options.

Those activists built an unsanctioned makeshift warming tent on Monday, equipped with propane fires and chairs. The tent was enclosed with tarps and had blankets on the floor to help insulate it. Advocates were present throughout the tent’s construction, passing out blankets and survival gear during the day.

“This is modern-day buffalo hides. This is ingenuity,” said Carl Moore, of Our Unsheltered Relatives, as he worked to build the tent at 350 S. 500 West near the Rio Grande Depot. The tent — five canopies lashed together and lined with tarps — measures approximately 20 feet by 60 feet. Approximately 20 people huddled inside Monday night, sitting or standing as they warmed from the freezing temperatures outside.

Moore is a member of the 2nd and 2nd Coalition, a group of advocates that hosts “movie nights” at the First United Methodist Church when temperatures are near freezing, bending the law, as a way to give the homeless another option for coming in from the cold. On nights like Monday, when the church isn’t available, coalition members work to meet the need however possible.

The church is a donated space and can only operate several days at a time. The building’s facilities need to be maintained in the time between to continue to operate.

“This is life and death. We’re not able to keep the shelter open every day, or even days where it’s below 20 degrees,” said Moore. “This is something we’re doing because the city is not doing enough to help people out.”

“If the police care about people, if they care about protecting and serving they should be leaving this up. In fact, they should be helping in some kind of way,” Moore continued.

The plan was to operate the warming tent through Monday night, until the First United Methodist Church could provide shelter Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

“If the housed population had their heat shut off, the city would be falling all over themselves to open up a building to get people inside. The fact that they don’t do it shows they don’t value our unhoused neighbors,” said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah.

“We are constantly torn between communicating with the city in an effort to get more services active and the city using their enforcement arms to shut us down. Like there’s no logistical reason why this should be illegal. In fact, the city should have opened a building and the city should be staffing of building and there should be a response,” Garvin added.

Advocates said they had communicated their anticipated efforts and were told the city would attempt to locate a building. The tent’s continuing operation was in doubt by 5 p.m. with homeless advocates saying Salt Lake City officials may shut it down.

“I think we’re all working as hard as we possibly can to figure out options for tonight but really it’s too early to say, there’s a lot of moving parts,” Salt Lake City Homeless Coordinator Andrew Johnston said at the time.

Johnston and State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser visited the makeshift warming shelter Monday night to speak with advocates. About 9 p.m., Salt Lake County opened the Central City Recreation Center, located at 615 S. 300 East, as a temporary warming spot. The center will continue to be used, based on need, while the dangerously cold weather persists.

“I want to thank and acknowledge not just the efforts of city and county staff but also the many volunteers who moved quickly to establish this additional site today,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a news release.

“I’m grateful for Mayor Wilson’s eagerness to partner to keep as many of our unsheltered neighbors as safe as possible during this cold weather,” added Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. “We will continue to work collaboratively across the board to find solutions for those most in need in our community.”

While the county was able to supply the center, staffing the building presented another difficulty. Staffing has been a barrier across the homeless resource system, with staff members experiencing significant burnout and calling for higher wages. The expansion of winter overflow shelter beds is dependent on providers being able to staff the system.

“Providers are doing all they can to staff up but there are staffing shortages statewide. The staffing problems, that has nothing to do with the state or the city. The providers are doing staffing and everywhere has staffing shortages right now. There is nothing the state or city could be doing to help with that,” said Sarah Nielson, spokesperson for the Utah Office of Homeless Services.

The staffing shortages was also acknowledged by the county who indicated that while there have been beds available in the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness system that the shortages recently continue to make it difficult for non-profit shelter providers to create additional capacity.

The winter overflow plan approved by the state with the additional beds expanded by the emergency orders has. not been fully met and currently the system is short approximately 10 beds, according to state data.

“You have to have staff, but the city didn’t accompany their increase in limits with funding to hire more staff or to increase wages, because they’re offering I think $18 an hour and you can’t live in the city on $18 an hour,” Garvin contended.

Officials hoped to rely on advocates to help meet the staffing need at the Central City Recreation Center.

“We are tired. This is emotionally draining. It is the city’s responsibility, they should staff everything. We’re only doing this out of our moral obligation because the city isn’t doing it,” said Moore.

Salt Lake County indicated that community volunteers including doctors and volunteers were present Monday to help with the plan. Officials added that staff members and other homeless advocates were out on the streets working to identify and move people inside. Approximately 30 people were able to seek shelter in the recreation center on Monday, according to advocates.

It appeared late Monday that the warming tent would be allowed to operate through the night, advocates said, but would be subject to a camping abatement, or take-down, scheduled for the area the next day.

Camping abatements are cleanings conducted by the health department, along with city workers, where unsheltered populations have resided for a period of time. A notice is posted generally within 24 hours before the cleaning is conducted and items are removed in the process. By Tuesday morning, Salt Lake police and city workers had arrived to clear the area.

There is some controversy about the process, but state and county health department officials say it is necessary to avoid the spread of disease and other issues pertaining to health and hygiene.

“They continue to make commitments to not to push people and then they push them,” Garvin said. “They do it without notice; they do it without adequate facilities. People don’t have anywhere to go that’s safe. And they do it without case managers on-site, without social workers on-site to mitigate some of the trauma that they’re creating by their bulldozers and their police officers.”

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County opens warming center after Salt Lake homeless advocates build unsanctioned tent