SALT LAKE CITY — A clash between protestors and Salt Lake City police earlier this month highlighted a potential secondary problem that those experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County face each day.
During that Jan. 4 protest in Washington Square, police arrested 17 people they say were violating park curfew. Protesters were upset, arguing there were no available beds for homeless individuals at any of the county’s resource shelters that night; police said there were 74 beds available.
Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter The Homeless, an organization that oversees the three main shelters in the county, said that the number of available beds that night was actually 18.
So, how was it that the three sides to the issue all had different numbers for that night? And if you’re experiencing homelessness, how are you able to know if there is a bed available?
Understanding state homeless and bed numbers
First of all, it’s important to understand how city, county and state officials gather their data. Each January, they chronicle the number of people who are experiencing homelessness throughout the state at that time. This process not only tracks the homeless population, but also helps local, county and state officials get a grasp on the number of beds available and ensure they have enough to provide shelter for all of those in need, said Christina Davis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
In January 2019, there were 2,798 people who were experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in the state. At the same time, there were 2,572 emergency shelter beds across Utah, according to the 2019 report.
This year’s count will be the first time officials will gather data since a massive overhaul to homeless shelters in Salt Lake County, which is where many state homeless resources are. The 1,100-bed Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City closed in November, and multiple new resource centers have opened since the 2019 report was gathered.
There are an estimated 2,606 emergency shelter beds available across Utah; about 700 of those emergency shelter beds come from three main new resource centers and there are about 1,600 total emergency shelter beds in Salt Lake County, according to DWS. Davis said the total number takes into account seasonal bed data and also depends on available hotel rooms. A complete number of those who are experiencing homelessness and bed numbers will be determined when officials gather that data next week.
That said, there are other options than just resource centers, Cochrane explained in an interview with KSL.com on Monday. He said the overall goal is to provide options for those seeking services, which may include connecting them with family, friends or a service provider, or providing residential treatment.
“The real key distinction from the old model to the new model is the focus on housing. So, there were bed capacity limits that were set in order to force the shift and make the entire community rally around housing first,” Cochrane said. “What we're seeing in Salt Lake County, with the three new resource centers, is a higher demand on the system. And as we make the transition to the new homeless resource center model, and as we implement that model, we recognize there may be an increased demand — which we've seen, which is causing some to feel uncomfortable because of the desire to provide shelter to everyone seeking it.”
There are also resource beds in places like Ogden and St. George, as well as multiple domestic violence shelters scattered across the state, Davis added.
“There are other nonprofit service providers that provide a few beds here or there, or they provide motel vouchers for emergency shelter situations or different things like that,” she said. “So, there are a number of different options to meet that emergency shelter needs.”
Dealing with a learning curve
Let’s say you’re still in need of an emergency shelter in Salt Lake County. In that case, 2019 was a year of change. The downtown Road Home shelter closed, while new shelters opened across the county. The options now include:
- 1000 West Men's Resource Center, 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake, added 300 men’s beds.
- The Gail Miller Resource Center, 242 W. Paramount Ave. in Salt Lake City, has 160 beds for men and 40 beds for women.
- The Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, 131 E. 700 South in Salt Lake City, added 200 beds for women.
- The Midvale Family Resource Center, 529 W. 7300 South, has 300 beds for people with children.
- The St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center, 437 W. 200 South in Salt Lake City, has a 58-mat overflow and a 100-chair “warming center” during the evening.
Shelter The Homeless oversees the South Salt Lake, Gail Miller and Geraldine E. King resource centers. Cochrane said all three, combined, have seen occupancy rates from 92% to 99% since those have opened. The organization doesn’t have access to bed numbers from private providers who help those in need, so there may be other beds available in the county.
Getting people accustomed to a new system over the span of a few months has been a bit of a learning curve, Cochrane and Davis both said. For example, the shelters are spread out and aren’t as conveniently located next to a Utah Transportation Authority TRAX stations as the downtown Road Home was.
There are shuttles that offer transportation to the shelters, Cochrane said. However, that requires funding and some may still decide to walk anyway. In addition, there’s a limit to what can be brought into a resource shelter, which may deter people who carry a lot of personal stuff with them. On top of that, Davis said it hasn’t been easy getting everyone informed how the new system works.
“There's a very active, but kind of informal communication system for that population,” she said. “There's lots of just word-of-mouth, and it's easy for things to get a little bit off as information kind of travels that way.”
Services are open throughout the day for people seeking information about assistance. The Weigand Center in downtown Salt Lake City is now also open at night for the same purpose, Davis added. Officials hope that will help those in crisis get the help they need as quickly as possible.
How to know if there are beds available
People in Salt Lake County can call Utah Community Action at 801-990-9999, or 211, for help and to be directed to any housing assistance needed. They can also visit the Weigand Center for assistance.
Going back to that Jan. 4 protest, how did police and protesters each have different bed numbers for that night? Cochrane said he believed police had looked at statewide bed availability numbers that night, not the number available among the three key resource centers in the county.
And of the 700 or so beds in the county system, available bed numbers are constantly changing, which might cause confusion, he said. For example, there might be someone who just needs a bed for a night, or possibly only five nights.
“It really fluctuates on a daily basis, and minute by minute,” Cochrane said. “You could call in today at noon and there might not be a bed available. Call back in an hour there might be, or three hours or four hours.”
That inconstancy matched with an informal communication system poses the possibility that three people could come up with different numbers when talking about bed availability.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall acknowledged homeless housing communication concerns during her inauguration Jan. 6. In a statement provided to KSL.com on Tuesday, Mendenhall doubled down on the topic. She said she is interested in implementing an accurate, easy-to-use website or phone app for anyone to track bed availability by the minute.
“I am continuing my commitment to looking for opportunities to fill gaps in homeless services and am dedicated to ensuring that no person has to sleep out on the street because there’s no other option for them. I don’t want a single person to be denied shelter when it’s freezing outside,” her statement reads. “We’re working on creative solutions alongside partners in the community to investigate options for shelter during the winter.”
For now, that doesn’t exist, and Davis said there aren’t any active plans to adjust communication systems. However, both Cochrane and Davis said those who oversee the state’s homeless shelters meet weekly to discuss ways to improve the system. That could mean addressing concerns about communication, public safety or crisis response.
In the meantime, Davis encourages people to use the phone number or go to the Weigand Center if they are in need
"There are services for anybody who needs services," she said. "We just encourage people to call the phone number, come down to the Weigand Center and connect with service providers. And if that way they may be able to be connected to a homeless resource center or it may be something else. There's treatment available for people who need treatment. There's housing assistance available for people in that. There's transportation assistance, all these things."