SALT LAKE CITY — The Road Home’s downtown shelter isn’t anywhere close to shuttering — that is, unless state officials can figure out with to do with more than 100 men.
As of Monday night, the downtown shelter was housing 408 men, Michelle Flynn, the Road Home’s associate executive director of programs, told the Shelter the Homeless board Tuesday afternoon.
That’s compared to the yet-to-open South Salt Lake men’s center that’s capped at 300 beds.
Meanwhile, the 200-bed Geraldine E. King Women’s Center has already hit capacity, as well as the 200-bed mixed gender Gail Miller Resource Center, which houses 160 beds for men and 40 beds for women.
“So we would be over capacity, in terms of the need,” Preston Cochrane, Shelter the Homeless’ executive director, said as the board gathered to review the status of the overhaul of the homeless system designed to shut down the troubled shelter in Salt Lake’s Rio Grande area.
The group fell briefly quiet before board member and developer Josh Romney, of The Romney Group, broke the silence.
“So what’s the plan there?” Romney asked with a strained laugh.
It’s the latest hurdle Shelter the Homeless, political leaders on state, city and county levels, and homeless service providers face.
In the yearslong effort to break up the Road Home’s up-to 1,100-bed downtown shelter amid concerns of drugs and crime in the area, three smaller service-focused resource centers were built at upward of $63 million in public and private money. Ever since the centers were capped at 200 beds each for the Salt Lake sites and 300 beds for the South Salt Lake facility, some homeless advocates and city leaders have raised concerns that the new centers would quickly reach capacity.
State officials last year, when responding to those concerns, said the need for an additional overflow shelter would be a “worst-case scenario,” confident that other methods to divert people from shelter — such as housing programs, motel vouchers or other strategies — would make due.
But as of Tuesday, it wasn’t clear where those other 100-plus men would go once the 300-bed South South Lake center is full — slated tentatively to open mid-November — and if or when the Road Home’s downtown shelter would actually close.
“If we’re 100 over, obviously we’re not going to be able to close the Road Home downtown,” Romney said. “Is the plan to keep that open?”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a member of the Shelter the Homeless board and a lead state official overseeing the homeless center transition, said a meeting with political heavyweights including Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson, and city and county leaders is in the process of being scheduled, “hopefully over the next couple of weeks.”
“We want everyone in the room to talk about the issue,” Cox said. “That’s what’s on the table.”
Tuesday’s meeting came after women living on the streets told KSL they were frustrated after being unable to obtain beds at the two homeless resource centers, and confused about alternative options such as going to the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall for overflow shelter, which officials say has capacity for 58.
If need be, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee can issue additional funds for emergency overflow, state officials have said, including motel vouchers. At the same time, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has been in the process of finding an emergency site for additional overflow if needed.
It’s too early to tell whether political leaders will decide to site an emergency overflow shelter, which likely depends on the outcome of the meeting convened by Cox.
“I don’t know that yet,” said Jon Pierpont, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which has been coordinating the homeless system transition.
After the state-imposed July 1 deadline to close the downtown shelter came and went amid numerous delays with the South Salt Lake shelter, leaders have said the downtown shelter would not shutter until everyone had a roof over their head.
That pledge stands firm, Cochrane said after Tuesday’s meeting.
“We don’t want anyone on the street during cold months,” he said. “Everyone needs a bed and a place to go ... So we have to look at other facilities, other partners within the community who may have other capacity.”
Asked if that could mean a brand-new emergency overflow shelter could be sited somewhere in the city, Cochrane said “it could be.”
“That could be one option or what’s another existing building that could be turned into that,” Cochrane said. “Or obviously there’s the Road Home — do you leave that open? I think that’s the topic (Cox) will be leading.”
Meanwhile, a separate issue continues to complicate the opening of the 300-bed South Salt Lake men’s center, though Shelter the Homeless took a step forward Tuesday to perhaps find a solution without resorting to what one board member called the “nuclear option.”
Since July — amid clashes with South Salt Lake officials over the center’s permitting and rules of operation — Shelter the Homeless has been poised to transfer the center to state ownership if a compromise cannot be reached. As a state facility, the city would have no power to regulate its operation with a conditional use permit.
Last week, the South Salt Lake Planning Commission approved the last remaining conditional use permit needed to allow the 300-bed men’s shelter to open.
But Tuesday, Shelter the Homeless and homeless service providers including leaders from Volunteers of America Utah and the Road Home expressed concerns with some of the rules included in the permit.
Some of those rules include limiting the average length of stay within the shelter to no more than 90 days unless the mayor declares an emergency and requiring a secure location to store controlled substance medication so even prescribed drugs aren’t allowed in the dorm areas, among other issues.
The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing ways to address those concerns, and ultimately most board members were confident they could reach a compromise on the issues before the commission could consider amendments to the permit during a Nov. 7 meeting. The board approved a motion to agree to sign the permit on the condition the planning commission addresses those concerns in its amendment.
If not, Shelter the Homeless still has its “nuclear option” to transfer the shelter to the state, said board member Jon Lear, an attorney. But board Chairman Harris Simmons, CEO of Zions Bancorp., said Shelter the Homeless would rather be “good neighbors” to South Salt Lake and work through their process.
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood told the board adjustments could likely be made to the permit on Nov. 7, and she didn’t “see this being a long, drawn-out process.”
“It’s not our wish, as hard as we worked as a community, to say we’re willing to house this facility with these conditions (but) at the last minute get it taken away and given to the state,” Wood said.
Cochrane said he didn’t believe the permit will delay the South Salt Lake center any further, still expecting it to be open mid-November.
“We got some consensus,” he said. “It sounds like South Salt Lake’s willing to work with us on that.”