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Salt Lake City officials, homeless advocates prepare for freezing temperatures this week

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 Jan. 10, 2022.

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 Jan. 10, 2022. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY โ€” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and homeless advocates are preparing for bitter temperatures and advising unsheltered individuals to seek shelter when possible as the chill sets in.

In a series of tweets Sunday night, Mendenhall said police and firefighters would be looking at getting unsheltered people indoors because of the low temperatures. The mayor's tweet Sunday night came just before Salt Lake City's temperatures fell to 21 degrees overnight into Monday morning along with wind chills in the teens.

"If you can, please check on any vulnerable neighbors to make sure their heat is working and they have everything they need," she wrote online.

However, the cold is not over just yet. This week's forecast calls for high temperatures to remain near or below the freezing point through at least Friday, with overnight lows remaining close to 20 degrees, as well. As it stands Monday evening, Saturday could be the warmest day with a high of 36 degrees and a low of 25 degrees.

The temperatures pose an increased risk to people who are experiencing homelessness with the possibility of developing fatal cases of hypothermia or frostbite. Five unsheltered individuals died last month in similar temperatures on the streets of Salt Lake City and three other deaths occurred in Provo during the winter season, officials confirmed.

The five deaths prompted an emergency declaration from Mayor Mendenhall, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini to increase capacity at area shelters.

The increase further flexes the capacity beyond the state's required plan for winter overflow. The increased capacity is estimated to bring around 25 additional beds to each of Salt Lake City's homeless shelters, with an estimated 95 additional beds overall. State officials have indicated that several resource centers have been able to increase capacity but did not provide an exact number.

Ahead of the cold temperatures the Utah Office of Homeless Services released the following statement:

"Service providers around the state offer various shelter and housing service for those in need during these cold winter months. For those in Salt Lake County, call 801-990-9999 to access emergency shelter. For other parts of the state, call 211 to find services in your area. With overnight temperatures well below freezing, I encourage anyone who is sleeping in a tent or in a vehicle to take advantage of shelter options."

Outside of the city and state response, homeless advocates have continued to open the doors of the First United Methodist Church to provide aid to the unsheltered during freezing temperatures. While the efforts of advocates have been applauded by state and city officials, those participating in efforts call for additional support.

On Sunday night, the First United Methodist Church's movie night reached its max capacity of 85 people within 40 minutes of opening. Advocates reported turning 20 to 25 people away and are calling for additional resources.

"Friends, we're facing a really scary combo tonight. It will be 15 degrees with 50 mph winds," Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, wrote in a Facebook post. "We're doing an emergency run tonight to get tents, sleeping bags, candles and Sterno. We could really use your help with dollars to support this. We'd like to clean out every low-priced tent in the valley to ensure folks' safety."

While the group works to find an open shelter bed for individuals when capacity is met, advocates report many of the shelters being at capacity.

Garvin also noted that even when the numbers indicate there are a few shelter beds that may be available unsheltered individual face barriers in accessing them.

"Some weren't allowed in shelters, others aren't willing to go due to being separated as couples, or having pets. That puts them out in terrible temperatures," Garvin said. "The way transportation is set up, the shelters often don't know when they have free beds until midnight โ€” by then, folks have made plans to stay in tents because it's been brutally cold for hours."

While Mendenhall notes that the response is better now than it was a month ago, "It's not enough. We know we need more shelter. We have the fastest growing population in the nation here in Utah."

"We're the strongest economy in the nation. There's no reason that the state of Utah can't get its arms around its homelessness issues. And we've started to see that with the last legislative session appropriating $55 million for affordable housing, and we hope to see more of that kind of support because that is the kind of support that is cognizant and responsible for the realities that our state is facing," Mendenhall added.

It's currently unclear how long the cold stretch will last. KSL meteorologist Matt Johnson explained that a high-pressure system is currently building up in the West. While that's currently blocking major storms from arriving in Utah, aside from a couple of small storms that could produce some snow flurries, it's also locking in the cold air. This means an inversion will build up during the week, too.

And the cold stretch could remain in place into next week. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center currently projects a higher probability for precipitation to return along with below-normal temperatures to close out January and start February.

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and 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.
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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