Can Salt Lake County plan meet emergency shelter needs of homeless? (Deseret News)

By Marjorie Cortez

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 500 single men stayed at the Road Home's downtown shelter Tuesday night in what is the hottest stretch of the summer.

Salt Lake officials report there have been as many as 50 campsites along the Jordan River between 3300 South and 5600 South this summer, many of them occupied by people experiencing homelessness.

Add to them a population of people who tend to congregate around 500 West, who aren't regular users of homeless services and "we don't have a lot of information about them," says Jonathan Hardy, director of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development.

As Salt Lake County officials work to develop a plan to reform the delivery of homeless services, some advocates are questioning whether a proposal that calls for construction of two 250-bed facilities in Salt Lake City — one to serve single men, the other for single men, single women and couples — and eventually phasing out the downtown shelter will accommodate unmet need and growth in the system.

While the plan was endorsed in concept Tuesday by the county's Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee, some advocates are not yet comfortable signing on to Mayor Ben McAdams' administration's Homeless Services System Reform Plan.

Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, which advocates for people with low incomes and provides some direct services, said he hopes the plan succeeds in reducing shelter demand and improved service delivery.

However, there remains a need for emergency shelter, he said.

"We need to make sure that everyone who wants to come inside can. You've got to build an adequate system, and we've got to prove that these strategies to reduce capacity are actually going to do that," Bailey said.

Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, which operates the state's largest homeless shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. and a new year-round family shelter in Midvale, said he, too, worries about adequate capacity to meet current and future demand in light of Utah's growing population.

"I think we have more work to do. I am very reluctant not to support this plan, incredibly reluctant not to support this plan. … In doing so, it would suggest, unintentionally, we are somehow married to the status quo," Minkevitch said.

There is ample evidence to the contrary, he said.

The Road Home has stretched beyond its core mission of providing emergency shelter by developing and managing supportive and transitional housing, he said. A diversion pilot is underway at its family shelter, and the nonprofit agency has been identified as a partner in the county reform plan's Homes Not Jail initiative intended to reduce the shelter demand.

But the organization wants "more meat on the bones" before it can endorse the plan in full, Minkevitch said.

If demand for emergency shelter outstrips supply to the point that the agency has to turn away people who need shelter, it not only imperils those people but has negative impacts on businesses and other neighbors, Minkevitch said.

"I don't want to impose on the graveyard shift, 'OK, tonight at "this point" we turn people away.' That's a task that's not fair to ask anyone to do," he said.

The plan, as developed by McAdams' administration through the work of the county's collective impact group, would target two populations that regularly occupy significant numbers of shelter beds. One is people with significant criminal histories who turn to the sheltering system after serving jail or prison time. The other includes people who are persistently homeless and as a consequence commit minor criminal offenses that leave them bouncing between homeless shelters and jails.

The goal of two "pay for success" initiatives is to house those individuals elsewhere in the community in rental units and use intensive case management to help each individual stabilize and meet specific, measurable goals. The programs would be subject to intensive evaluation.

A timetable for the proposal suggests newly built facilities — two emergency facilities in Salt Lake City and a family and community resource facility elsewhere in the county — would come online in 2018.

Rehabilitation facilities for women and men, 70 beds and 35 beds, respectively, would also help lighten the load and could be available as early as next year under the proposal.

The plan also envisions a real-time dashboard to help keep tabs on diversions, shelter loads and other programs intended to reduce demand.

McAdams said his administration needed an endorsement of the reform plan to report to the Utah Legislature and explain the need for funding for new facilities.

The Legislature appropriated $9.25 million to system reform during this year's general session, the first installment of a three-year statewide plan.

While McAdams said growth of the current system is not a desired outcome, he acknowledged concerns about unmet need and future demand.

Shaleane Gee, director of special projects and partnerships for Salt Lake County, said the granular details have yet to be fully developed, but the "model is designed to provide possibilities."

The plan shifts the focus from a shelter-based system to a service-based system, the mayor said.

McAdams said the takeaway lesson of his recent trip to the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Washington, D.C., helped crystallize his thinking: "The more you spend on emergency shelter, the less you have to spend on services."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com