SALT LAKE CITY — The day after protesters brought a Salt Lake City Council meeting to a halt demanding that the Road Home’s downtown shelter remain open through winter, Utah’s top homelessness official called the protest “bad form.”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — who is also running to be Utah’s next governor — told reporters Wednesday there are “better ways” to make voices heard.
“What I love about our country and our state is we do have the opportunity to let people know how we feel about things,” Cox said. “We should express our voices. There are better ways to do that than others. I don’t think shutting down a meeting is going to help anyone. And so I don’t think that was good form.”
Cox said Tuesday’s protest wasn’t “the best way to handle things,” but he’s “grateful there are people that are passionate and care” about Utah’s homeless.
State officials — not city officials — now own the downtown shelter property. Cox noted there remains a Utah law mandating the closure of the downtown shelter (even though that June 30 deadline came and went months ago), but he reiterated the promise that everyone will be given shelter before the downtown shelter shutters, currently slated for the end of the month as officials move ahead in efforts to shift to a more service-based and housing-focused homeless system.
“No one is going to be left out in the cold, no matter what happens,” Cox said. “That is critical. That is top of mind for everyone out there. We will have a place for everyone.”
Cox added: “What’s most important, and what I hope everyone agrees with, is that housing is better than shelter. And that’s what we’re working on. That’s what is happening.”
Cox’s comments came after Wednesday’s meeting of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, the body that distributes state funds to homeless shelters and programming across the state. Cox serves as chairman of the committee.
Tuesday night’s protests came amid long-standing concerns the new homeless centers, meant to replace the 1,100-bed downtown shelter, won’t have enough beds as winter descends. An estimated 100-bed shortage is anticipated when the 300-bed South Salt Lake men’s shelter fills up later this month.
In Wednesday’s meeting, state officials — like they did in a three-hour Salt Lake City Council meeting a day earlier — again pointed to a variety of overflow options being used to divert people from shelter if they don’t fit in the new resource centers, including motel vouchers, overflow shelter at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall, and calls to landlords to offer additional housing units.
I don’t think shutting down a meeting is going to help anyone.
–Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox
That includes more than 90 additional housing units so far identified, 78 additional drug treatment beds, 58 mats at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall, and vouchers for 40 motel rooms to house 80 people, up from 25 motel rooms meant to house 50 people, according to the Department of Workforce Services.
“The numbers that we have so far show we’re going to far exceed even our best hopes, not just with housing, which we’re already well over the anticipated goal, but also with treatment beds, which is huge,” Cox said. “We feel very, very optimistic right now, but we’ll know more in the next couple of weeks as we bring everyone back together.”
But state officials on Wednesday heard a new concern raised by Midvale Mayor Robert Hale, a member of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, who called the Road Home’s 300-bed family shelter located in his city “jampacked.”
“It’s overburdened, always full, and I think there’s becoming a need to consider another family shelter somewhere,” Hale said.
The Midvale Family Resource Center, which in recent years became a family-only shelter as part of Utah’s transition to a new homeless system, is now the oldest facility. It’s run by the Road Home, which currently offers motel vouchers for families who don’t fit in the shelter — to the tune of about 12 to 13 rooms currently in use, according to Michelle Flynn, the Road Home’s associate executive director of programs. More funds for motels are available for use for families, but they have not been needed for the past two years, Flynn said.
Hale in an interview with KSL acknowledged the Midvale shelter can utilize motel vouchers for overflow, but he wanted to put its strained capacity “on the radar” of the state committee as something to consider in the future.
The mayor noted there could be bed expansion within the building, but it would “definitely need analysis and design” to be mindful of children and quality of life within the shelter.
Cox, asked about Hale’s comments, told KSL, “We haven’t had that discussion yet.”
“That’s the first time it’s been brought up,” Cox said, “So I don’t really have a comment on that other than to say the numbers have actually remained pretty steady over the past three years. ... It’s really an incredible facility and is helping a lot of people. I’m sure we’ll have those discussions with the mayor down the road.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, the coordinating committee approved about $4.7 million collected from local sales tax to help pay for police and fire needs that come with the impact of the three new homeless resource centers built to overhaul the new homeless system.
South Salt Lake was awarded about $2.1 million for public safety services while Midvale was awarded $1.3 million — to potentially get more if Utah Tax Commission estimates come in higher than currently projected. Salt Lake City was awarded $160,100, St. George was awarded $243,750, and Vernal was awarded $85,565.
Ogden — which houses two homeless shelters in Weber County, where officials have tracked a “startling” and “disproportionate” rise in homelessness in recent years — was awarded more than it has been in past years — $961,576.
The money granted was still less than nearly all the cities requested, but Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell was appreciative of the additional funds, noting the added strain on Ogden’s homeless system.
“I am certainly not going to complain,” Caldwell said. “It’s a lot more fair this year.”