SALT LAKE CITY — Significant safety issues exist at the downtown Salt Lake and Midvale homeless shelters operated by the Road Home, "largely due to a lax enforcement of the rules and procedures designed to prevent drug use and to provide a secure environment," according to the findings of a state audit released Tuesday.
"We have serious concerns about the health and safety of the residents at both emergency shelters," the Office of the Legislative Auditor General concluded in its report.
The audit also cited the same concerns for residents of the Palmer Court housing complex in Salt Lake City that is operated by the Road Home, which provides inexpensive living accommodations for the chronically homeless and disabled.
The audit, which began in January, recorded "troubling allegations regarding drug use, safety concerns, poor health conditions and mismanagement at the downtown shelter."
Those allegations "were repeated during our interviews with several dozen homeless individuals who have stayed at the shelter," the report said.
Auditors said they were concerned about the ease with which illicit drugs could infiltrate the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City.
"While we recognize that security staff usually remove individuals from the shelter when they are found using drugs or have been banned from the facility, we are still troubled by how easily residents are able to enter the facility with drugs and drug paraphernalia," the report said.
The report cited information from state law enforcement about a man who had recently been arrested inside the shelter and was found to be in possession of a loaded gun, drugs and drug paraphernalia.
"The case … raises concerns about the ability of staff to control access into the downtown shelter," the report said. "Not only did the individual enter the facility undetected with a gun and drug paraphernalia, but he had already been banned from the shelter for theft and drugs."
Responding Tuesday, Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, assured "we will re-visit our rules." He said that process would happen "in collaboration ... with our service providers."
Minkevitch, speaking at a Tuesday hearing before the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, pushed back against the idea that the staff at the Road Home shelters are turning a blind eye to drug problems at the facilities.
"If there is any suggestion our team tolerates drug dealing, I assure you we are not," Minkevitch said.
The Road Home said in a release Friday that it would be "updating the standards of conduct" at its facilities, as well as the "processes to enforce them." The organization also promised to "further standardize policies that address" public safety and drug abuse at its facilities, among other factors.
Auditors reported Tuesday that "during nearly every visit, we found some evidence of drug use" at the downtown shelter.
During the visits, "we observed individuals who appeared to have been under the influence of drugs, we saw drug paraphernalia, or we could smell the odor of the drug commonly referred to as Spice," the report said.
Other visits also yielded the discovery of a "used syringe under a bunk" and "Spice joints in the urinal."
Auditors also reported they had interviewed 21 homeless people living on the streets of Salt Lake City, and that "nearly a third" reported they avoided the shelter in order to avoid the "drug use, stealing and poor health conditions at the downtown shelter."
Auditors did not discover drugs or paraphernalia on their visits to the family shelter operated by the Road Home in Midvale, but police reports indicate drugs have been a problem there as well, the audit said.
"In February … police arrested an individual at the shelter wanted by local authorities, who was found with drug paraphernalia and a large knife," according to the report.
Auditors also said police have reported a candy laced with THC — marijuana's psychoactive ingredient — was also found in a "public area" of the Midvale shelter.
"We are concerned that candy containing THC could be found at a community shelter where children are present," the report said.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said even one incident like the examples cited in the audit should be a sufficient wakeup call to the Road Home to re-examine its practices.
"The day we know weapons are in there, the day we find out there was a candy (laced with THC), is the day we step up our game," Hughes said.
At Palmer Court, "outside social workers, the Road Home staff, and residents have all indicated that they know who uses drugs and that they have observed drug use at the facility," according to the report.
The audit cited "lax enforcement of shelter rules" as a significant factor in the issue of drug use in the downtown shelter.
"Staff are inconsistent in enforcing the rules and procedures designed to prevent drugs from entering the facility," the report said. "For example, upon entering the downtown shelter, residents are supposed to have their bags and coats inspected for drugs, and a magnetic wand should be used to screen each person for weapons.
"In actual practice, we observed the screening often consists of little more than waving the magnetic wand over the coat pockets. Sometimes even that step is not done."
In examining the sanitation of each location operated by the Road Home, audits found that "while the shelters appeared to meet county health standards, health inspectors found numerous health and safety violations at Palmer Court."
The report also said that "the payment of rent at Palmer Court appears to be optional."
"We found that 69 percent of the residents are behind in their rent payments. In fact, the total unpaid debt obligation by all residents is currently $438,000," the report said. "Some residents are years behind in their rent and owe many thousands of dollars."
The Road Home submitted a multipage response to the audit's findings and vowed to look into areas where its operations need to do better.
"Thanks in part to this audit process, we have already learned of areas where we can improve in the delivery of service we provide," the Road Home said in its written response published along with the audit. "We are committed to continuing to improve."