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'A spot to sleep tonight': Winter overflow shelter opens amid struggles

Luis Perez, Volunteers of America shift lead, sets up overflow beds for the homeless in the Weigand Center for the Weigand Winter Overflow in Salt Lake City on Monday.

Luis Perez, Volunteers of America shift lead, sets up overflow beds for the homeless in the Weigand Center for the Weigand Winter Overflow in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The streets of Salt Lake City's Rio Grande area were mostly quiet Monday evening as temperatures began to settle into the mid-20s.

Despite the quiet and cold temperatures the streets weren't entirely empty. Dotting the sidewalks were people wrapped in tarps, torn blankets, or underneath piles of worn clothing. The scattered groups of people seemed to grow along Rio Grande Street as it neared homeless providers like Catholic Community Services.

Several Catholic Community Service's lights remained lit on Monday. Behind the gate and underneath the bright LED light, security guards and volunteers shuffled back and forth between buildings, preparing for the inevitable arrival of those people on the street.

The number of which has increased over the years, Volunteers of America President Kathy Bray said.

"It's much more visible than it ever used to be, and I think it's it appears to be growing a lot faster than the numbers would actually indicate," Bray said. "We have met people who said that they are on the streets or have become homeless because of the COVID pandemic, the loss of jobs or other circumstances related to COVID and that's been very difficult."

State and city officials have been aware of the need as homelessness has seemed to increase over the years. In August, The Salt Lake Valley Coalition To End Homelessness said at least 300 beds were needed for unsheltered people to have a place to stay at night. The assessment was supported by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who requested those beds become available before winter.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing shortages and other frustrations have delayed the request. While most temporary overflow shelters open in November as winter approaches, the Weigand Center opened officially on Monday.

"We knew prior to November that we needed 300 additional opportunities for people and had been talking with government partners for months, and it's difficult to get the land use and zoning approvals," Bray said.

She pointed to the extensive process that takes place before hiring can begin.

"It has been certainly difficult this year," Bray said of staffing shortages. The shortage has been further amplified by the omicron variant, she added.

In a December press conference, Mendenhall urged the public to apply for job openings at the various homeless service providers. Staffing shortages delayed the opening of temporary overflow shelters like Weigand and may further delay the opening of the remodeled Ramada.

Mendenhall had previously requested that overflow beds be located in other cities within Salt Lake County. A request that became highlighted in the approval of the Ramada Inn, that despite frustrations expressed by the Salt Lake City Council and Mendenhall was approved.

"It's clear this year that all levels of government need to be involved in the solution and in fact, that did end up being the case. We are trying to support more cities in providing places for people to stay overnight," Bray said.

"We've been participating in those conversations, and it's been difficult to find locations outside of Salt Lake City within the county despite our efforts to make that happen, but we still need to do our best to provide a place for people to come inside and get warm," she added.

The need for that was clear Monday, as several people waited in the doorway of the Weigand Center ahead of its opening. Wrapped in a thin blanket, a woman asked if she could just lay in the doorway. Staff members handed the woman a mask as she coughed and urged her to wait a few more minutes until the shelter opened.

Thirty-five mats with a blanket rolled at the top sat about a foot apart across the center's floor. Initially, it was thought the center would provide 60 beds but with staff limitations and building restrictions, the capacity fell.

"To try to get everything into place has been difficult and so we're excited about opening Weigand," Bray said. "It's a step in the right direction to get us to all the beds that we think we will need this winter. This will provide 35 more people with a spot to sleep tonight."

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Ashley Fredde covers human services, minority communities and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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