SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a crowd of homeless sitting on the east lawn of Library Square — some with shopping carts filled with belongings, some with umbrellas, some with nothing but the clothes on their back — Sara Entwhistle bristled with frustration.
At times, her eyes would well with tears before she’d brush them away.
She kept herself busy, stuffing bits of trash scattered on the sidewalk into a black garbage bag before pausing to help another woman, Natalie Vasquez, dye her hair purple and blue.
Entwhistle said she learned how to dye hair from her mother, who died from cancer about 10 years ago — which she said sent her into a homeless spiral, unable to get another apartment after her mother’s death left her without a cosigner for an apartment.
As Entwhistle painted Vasquez’s hair with her glove-covered hands Monday, both women told KSL they’d been sleeping on the streets in recent weeks, despite temperatures dropping below freezing — and despite the opening of two of Utah’s brand new, multimillion-dollar homeless resource centers meant to overhaul the state’s homeless system.
“They’re booked,” Entwhistle said. “You can’t get in.”
Utah’s new homeless centers are already turning away women
Both women said neither of them have been able to get beds inside the 200-bed Geraldine E. King Women’s Center, 131 E. 700 South, or the 200-bed, mixed-gender Gail Miller Resource Center, 242 Paramount Ave. — which officials say have already reached capacity for women, only weeks after their openings.
“It’s frustrating,” Vasquez said, describing how whenever she’s tried to get a bed, she’s sent away. “They just said that they’re full and to just keep checking back.”
That’s despite what Vasquez said she’s heard from other women who have gotten beds.
“The girls who come out of there say, ‘There’s like 10 beds in there, I don’t know why they’re telling you guys it’s overcrowded,’” she said. “There’s empty beds everywhere. Why are they turning everybody down?”
Resigned — and under the impression that the overflow shelter near the Road Home’s downtown shelter was only for men (which currently isn’t true, according to homeless officials) — Vasquez said she’s just hoping she gets housing before winter, even though she said she’s been on that wait list for over a year now.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “There’s just nothing there. ... You got all this money and all these resources and all these empty beds but you can’t get into nothing.”
Entwhistle, also incorrectly believing the St. Vincent De Paul shelter near the downtown shelter is only for men, said she’s become fed up with repeatedly failing to get a bed at the new homeless resource centers.
“If I can’t get in, right then at that exact moment, that sliver, then I don’t get in,” she said. “Day after day of that, it gets old. I get tired of it, going up there for nothing, you know?”
So instead, Entwhistle said she’s resorted to sleeping on the streets, staying warm with only a blanket and a makeshift heat lamp made out of a pop can, some toilet paper and hand sanitizer for fuel.
“Where the hell am I supposed to stay?” she said, also frustrated with the nightly struggle finding somewhere to sleep without police waking her up and telling her to move along. “We feel like cattle.”
Women like Entwhistle and Vasquez are feeling the brunt of what homeless advocates like Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, call a “startling” and “distressing” indication of a strain on the new homeless system — just weeks into the transition and with the potentially deadly clutches of winter already bearing down.
“We were afraid the plan was inadequate in other areas,” said Tibbitts, who has long been skeptical of the bed count of the new homeless centers and whether they would be enough. “But the fact that it’s inadequate in this area also means the potential for disaster is higher than we thought.”
Every year, a vigil is held for the homeless who die on Utah streets, and every year that number is upwards of 90 to 100, Tibbitts said.
And now — with women sleeping on the streets even though there is, currently, overflow capacity for women at the St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall — Tibbitts worries confusion, misinformation and “red tape” is adding to that danger of people freezing to death on the streets, even though upward of $63 million of public and private dollars have so far been spent on the construction of three new homeless resource centers.
“I’ve seen the more steps people have to take when they’re in a crisis, the more likely it is that there are people who will fall through the cracks,” Tibbitts said.
Homeless leaders working on adding more emergency overflow
With capacities of both the Geraldine E. King Women’s Center and the mixed-gender Gail Miller Resource Center combined, there’s about 240 beds available to homeless women in Salt Lake County — what state leaders expected would have been enough based off of estimates when the new homeless resource centers were being designed.
But this year, homeless leaders are seeing more women seeking shelter, said Christina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, a state entity that is helping the nonprofits running the transition from the Road Home’s current emergency shelter downtown to the smaller homeless centers scattered throughout Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.
“This time last year, the Road Home’s downtown shelter was generally serving about 200 women a night, and now we have more than 250,” Davis said, noting it may be a “positive” that more women are now willing to find services after previously being too nervous to come to the downtown shelter.
“But again,” Davis said. “It definitely creates a challenge as well.”
State officials have planned all along to have an emergency winter overflow option at St. Vincent’s — but the dining hall only has room for 58 mats, down from about 90 mats after the kitchen’s recent expansion.
Sunday night, 24 women used the overflow shelter at St. Vincents, said Michelle Flynn, the Road Home’s associate executive director of programs. Previously, the dining hall was used as overflow for men, and earlier this month it opened up to overflow for women as beds at the new homeless resource centers filled up.
There’s potential, as the 300-bed men’s shelter at South Salt Lake fills after its opening, for mid-November, that men will also need overflow — and that’s an issue both Flynn and Davis said homeless service providers and others are keeping a close eye on.
In fact, Davis said the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is having a “robust discussion” and is now in the process of finding an emergency site for additional overflow if needed.
Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s office of life, justice and peace, and a member of that coalition, told KSL on Monday a group within the coalition is considering a few options for another emergency overflow site, but it’s too early to say where it might go other than somewhere around the two homeless resource centers currently open.
But will there be enough overflow, especially as winter sets in even deeper over the next month?
“We hope so,” Davis said. “We certainly recognize that. We’re very aware of the temperature situation. We’re working on it basically every day.”
If need be, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee can release additional funds for emergency overflow, Davis said, including motel vouchers, housing initiatives or “any other thing that is determined helpful,” Davis said. Currently the state has budged about $60,000 for motel vouchers.
Flynn said homeless advocates are holding daily phone calls and meetings to meet the needs of both men and women, using motel vouchers for any additional needs while also working with Utah Community Action, the organization running the resource centers’ coordinated entry process, to divert women into housing or other programs where possible to free up additional beds within the centers.
“The key message I hope the women are getting is there is a place for them to stay,” Flynn said. “It might be at one particular resource center, the dining hall or a motel, but there is a place for your to stay and we’re going to work with you to make sure it’s the best option.”
On why some women are reporting seeing beds vacant while others are being turned away, Flynn said it’s a “challenge” as homeless providers are doing their best to reserve beds for women who have already checked in and say they will be back, but don’t return.
“Keeping those beds filled is a priority for us,” she said. “I know (the center operators) Catholic Community Services and Volunteers of America are working hard to make sure they are full.”
Both Flynn and Davis acknowledged there is likely confusion and misinformation circling among homeless women, and they committed working harder to ensure women know they have options like motel vouchers or overflow at the dining hall to stay out of the elements.
“It sounds like there’s an opportunity there for us to be doing a better job to educate people on what’s going on now,” Davis said. “We do recognize things are changing rapidly.”
Flynn urged anyone who doesn’t know where to turn for help to call the centralized intake number at 801-990-9999 to connect with Utah Community Action for help finding a bed.