December 16, 2020

As homeless population grows, Salt Lake City’s winter plan is underway

As homeless population grows, Salt Lake City’s winter plan is underway As homeless population grows, Salt Lake City’s winter plan is underway
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By Celeste Tholen

Amid rising rates of homelessness in part due to the pandemic’s economic impacts, local governments and service providers are investing in outreach and emergency shelters, including a new location on the West Side. But continued camp closures have stirred up activists who say people experiencing homelessness have nowhere else to go.

During the January 2020 Point in Time Count by the Utah Department of Workforce services, there were 704 unsheltered people living in Salt Lake City and 2,427 sheltered people (those staying in shelters) experiencing homelessness.

Those numbers have risen dramatically during the pandemic, said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City Councilmember and Chief Strategy Officer at the Volunteers of America Utah. He estimated that homelessness may have risen up to 50% between March and December compared to the same period in 2019. Many of those people are new to the system.

“There’s a large number of folks on the precipice, and if jobs fall through, family can’t help, they end up homeless,” Johnston said.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall outlined the Salt Lake City’s winter plan on Sept. 1 that involves Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and people living in the largest encampments in Salt Lake, like those on the West Side in the Granary District, Ballpark, on North Temple near 700 West, and on North Temple between 900 West and Redwood Road.

The Community Commitment Program plan has two phases at each encampment:

  • Clean Neighborhoods: a 12-week biowaste and trash cleanup that began on Sept. 14.
  • Coordinated Outreach: outreach with coalition partners that started Oct. 5 to get people into shelter and treatment programs. It also included a mobile service fair. Following this phase, camping will no longer be allowed at the site.

Mayor Mendenhall described the Community Commitment Program as “almost the opposite” of the enforcement-first approach to homeless camps earlier this year.

Still, the announcement of cleanups and camp closures received harsh criticism from activists and protesters during public hearings, with many calling in for more services funding, sanitization stations, housing, and emergency shelter. Some also demanded camp closures to stop.

Clean Neighborhoods

As part of the winter plan, the city council approved a $700,000 budget amendment for bio waste cleanup and to continue the Clean Neighborhoods program for one year.

In September, the council approved to distribute $12,397 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) grant for homeless services personnel.

Additionally, the mayor requested the following budget amendments that would impact homeless services:

  • $150,000 for the Fourth Street Clinic’s COVID testing units and medical services
  • $1.1 million toward rental and mortgage assistance and rapid rehousing

The council is also considering an amendment to increase funding for homeless services and add portable restrooms near encampments.

Coordinated Outreach

The city and its partners are conducting four-day outreach efforts at each encampment that bring service providers like legal aid, detox and treatment centers, shelter personnel, housing providers, and other resources to resolve issues on-site. After outreach, no-camping notices are posted.

Additionally, prior to one of the camp closures, the city held a mobile resource fair for the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness. Healthcare workers administered flu shots, housing providers connected with people, and substance abuse treatment centers were on site.

During the fair, the Salt Lake City Justice Court and District Court resolved nearly 70 warrants, according to Michelle Hoon, the Housing and Neighborhood Development Project and Policy Manager.

Hoon noted that between initial outreach efforts and the resource fair, 22 people had been brought in off the street as of Nov. 24. Prior to the service fair, 40 of the 166 people encountered had taken advantage of services, according to Mayor Mendenhall.

“One thing we know for certain is that our residents do not want to see camps just moved around, and taking a service-then-enforcement based approach, as we do with the [Community Commitment Program], is so much more effective at actually resolving the homeless crises of people on the street than, say, an enforcement-only approach does,” Hoon said.

Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness Winter Plan

As the impacts of COVID put more people on the streets than in recent years, the coalition has had to make adaptations to secure temporary emergency shelters that allow for social distancing.

The latest additions of permanent resources have increased permanent emergency shelter beds to 1,300. Through a mix of motel vouchers and overflow shelters, the coalition added 410 – 465 emergency shelter beds this season. The latest additions are two overflow shelters, which opened in December in a former Millcreek memory care facility and the Airport Inn.

The move to non-congregate facilities and motels is a big change from previous sheltering plans and allows for social distancing, Johnston noted.

Providers note that pets are welcome in many of the shelters, and that there are large locking bins for personal items in the resource centers.

If someone tests positive in a shelter, they are invited to go to a designated facility provided by Salt Lake County where they can isolate and receive care from on-site nurses, if needed. They can go back to the original shelter after they recover.

Moving Forward

More is needed, like rental assistance, landlord assistance, additional shelters, affordable housing, more medical services for COVID, increased minimum wage, and help with necessities like food, emphasized Jean Hill, coalition co-chair. With the end of the federal eviction moratorium on Dec. 31, she’s particularly concerned about more people losing their homes.

“There are bigger policy answers that COVID is bringing to the forefront like rising rental and housing prices and a minimum wage of $7.25 [an hour],” Hill said. “That’s just not sustainable.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that 58,663 Utah renter households live on less than $25,100 annually – about $16,000 short of what’s needed to afford a two-bedroom rental. NLIHC also reports a shortage of nearly 41,000 affordable rental homes for Utahns in this income bracket.

There are some affordable housing projects in the county, like Pamela’s Place and the Magnolia complex, as well as zoning changes that could expand single room occupancy units and tiny houses.

While those solutions may not come in time for some this winter, advocates hope they will reduce homelessness in the future.

If you (or someone else) are experiencing homelessness or are in need of emergency shelter, call 801-990-9999.

Shelter options and winter capacity

  • Future overflow location: 100–120 beds
  • Stay Safe Stay Home Motel: 130 beds
  • Millcreek overflow motel: 60
  • St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center: 40 mats, plus warming chairs
  • Motel vouchers: 80
  • Youth Resource Center: 30 (ages 15–22)
  • Gail Miller Resource Center: 200
  • South Salt Lake Men's Resource Center: 300
  • Midvale Family Resource Center: 300
  • Geraldine E. King Salt Lake City women’s shelter: 200