This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The recent announcement by Salt Lake City of sites for four new homeless shelters is most welcome. The shelter system is over capacity. The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, which was designed for about 600 people, now houses 1,100 on any given winter night.
The problem with the plan as presented by Mayor Jackie Biskupski is that it's simply inadequate. Four new 150-bed shelters cannot replace the 1,100 beds at the downtown Road Home location, and yet the mayor's announcement included the very clear statement that as soon as the new shelters are complete, the Road Home shelter on Rio Grande will be closed.
Here's where the magical thinking comes in. Somehow in two years' time we're going to spend upwards of $40 million to reduce shelter capacity by at least 500 beds. The mayor believes that low-income housing development and a "new" model of delivering services through "resource centers" will reduce the demand for shelter so that this math works. Unfortunately, no one can tell us how many housing units need to be developed, at what level of affordability, for how much money, and over what period of time in order to make this happen. The plan simply doesn't exist.
Furthermore, while much can be done to improve the experience of people seeking emergency shelter, as well as the ability of people to move through the system quickly, our four shiny new shelters will be at capacity from day one with a long list of people trying to get in. That's the same problem we have now. The shelter system is overwhelmed and simply bringing people inside is a challenge. While the Road Home would love to have the ability to give more individual attention to residents, saving lives is the priority.
Salt Lake residents who will be neighbors of the four new shelters have a right to know that they will be well managed and carefully utilized. They are being promised that the maximum capacity of these facilities will be 150 people each. Can you imagine any operator of a homeless shelter turning people away in 10-degree weather? Of course, they will try to get everyone inside and the overcrowding will continue.
A big part of the push for closing the downtown Road Home facility are developers and business interests. There are many concerned citizens and neighbors involved as well, but people who want to make more money in this part of our community are among the loudest voices. If we close the low barrier, downtown shelter and reduce shelter capacity by half because of pressure from developers, the results will be catastrophic. We will have more people on the street, especially in the Pioneer Park area, with no access to shelter. I don't think that will make anyone happy.
The answer is to build the new shelters. Make a real plan to build low-income housing. And keep the existing downtown shelter open until we no longer need it. Let's prove the new model works. Arbitrarily reducing shelter capacity based on magical thinking helps no one, not even downtown developers.
Glenn Bailey is executive director of Crossroads Urban Center.