SALT LAKE CITY — City and state officials don’t believe keeping the longstanding downtown homeless shelter open will be necessary after all the pieces of their plan fall into place in the coming weeks.
“We will do what we need to do to take care of those in need,” said Katherine Fife, Salt Lake County director of programs and partnerships. “No one will be left out in the cold.”
But concerns that people will be left out in the cold despite state and city efforts brought about 100 protesters out Thursday night to ask that the Road Home shelter remain open at least through the winter.
The leaders of a rally outside the shelter said they’d like to see it stay open until April — and that an equivalent number of beds must be made available by the time the shelter closes. They argue that finding sustainable solutions will take longer than the three weeks remaining until the shelter’s scheduled closure.
In the last week, since officials issued a call for help, an additional 20 property owners or landlords have stepped up to offer 77 units to help move homeless people into local housing.
With the existing homeless resource centers, available military, hotel and motel vouchers, overflow space for about 58 people, and more than $400,000 in state funding for caseworkers and rental assistance, it is believed that anyone who needs a place to stay will have it.
“It may not be a bed at one of the new resource centers, but it certainly will be someplace warm,” Fife said Thursday.
The Road Home, a very old shelter that has housed Salt Lake’s homeless families and individuals for decades and was not originally built for that purpose, is slated to close in a few weeks after 300 of its 400 occupants are moved to the new homeless resource center in South Salt Lake.
Utah lawmakers would have to change rules they created in order to keep the downtown shelter open, but some advocates are still pushing to keep it in operation.
Standing outside the shelter Thursday evening, protesters raised chants of “People over profit,” “No beds, no peace,” and “Take it back before it’s gone, the Road Home is not for sale.”
Austin Ahtt, who lived at the shelter on and off for two years and now resides in Millcreek, said he came out to the protest to support current shelter residents.
“I understand why they’re closing it, but this time of year?” Ahtt said. “They could have at least picked a better time.”
Katherine Crabtree held a sign quoting 1 Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.”
“I feel like we’re in a political climate in our country right now that doesn’t value empathy very highly, and I feel like that’s the root of the problem,” Crabtree said. Love, she said, is “being able to see yourself in that stranger on the street.”
To close the shelter as temperatures drop is “the definition of cruelty,” said Lex Scott, a leader in Black Lives Matter Utah.
City officials say that’s not their intention.
“We’re completely reforming the system to a housing-focused system,” said David Litvack, deputy chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. It’s a campaign that the city is leading, with collaboration from a number of partners that provide a variety of resources.
“We’re all working toward the same goal,” Litvack said. “We’re all committed to make sure every single individual has a warm place to be during the cold months.”
Dale Keller, manager of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s sanitation and safety bureau, said housing is a much better option.
Homeless encampments have wrought havoc throughout the city, including problems with human waste, land degradation and more than a million pounds of trash collected and taken to the Salt Lake County landfill, which has waived fees for health department workers dealing with homeless camps.
Camping outside of designated areas within the city is illegal, anyway.
“It is against the law, but black-and-white enforcement doesn’t work,” Keller said. His department has regulatory authority over the homeless camps, but there aren’t clear-cut rules for how to deal with all that can come of them, including the rampant public health hazards.
“It’s a big problem,” he said. “It’s huge.”
Keller is a member of the homeless services committee, a fairly large group of community players — entities and agencies from throughout the county that meet weekly to discuss issues surrounding homelessness in and outside of Salt Lake City. They all contribute ideas and resources where they can to solve the myriad of problems homelessness creates.
A lot of it involves getting the right resources to the right people, letting them know there is help for them, but also a lot of cleanup.
Keller’s team gives people living on the streets at least a day’s notice before coming in to sweep them out, a courtesy that is not required. He says he likes to give them time “to collect their belongings,” which is often all that they own.
We’re all committed to make sure every single individual has a warm place to be during the cold months.
–David Litvack, deputy chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski
He encourages people wanting to help to donate items or money to any number of charities already working with the homeless population to provide help. While personal, street-corner deliveries are appreciated, much of what is handed over ends up in the trash and Keller said he hates the idea of such good thought going to waste.
“The waste is something nobody has budgeted for,” he said. “It’s stunning the amount of garbage and trash that we see.”
The hope is that with additional housing options, more people can and will get off the streets.
Litvack said no one will be turned away and contingency plans are in place to help if everything fills up.
The other two new homeless resource centers, he said, are running at anywhere from 91% to 95% capacity, and an overflow center at the Catholic Community Services of Utah’s St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall is already being used.
“No one is being turned away,” Litvack said, adding that he expects the ongoing plan will help homeless individuals achieve “long-term success.”