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Another winter, another struggle to find shelter for homeless people in the Salt Lake Valley

A photo of Camp Last Hope.
Ivana Martinez
A large encampment grew in Salt Lake City last winter after local officials shut down others in the area.

As cold temperatures creep into the Salt Lake Valley, service providers and government officials are struggling to find emergency shelter space for people experiencing homelessness.

Laurie Hopkins, vice chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said there are plans in place to provide around 200 winter overflow beds, but they’re still looking for about 250 more.

Hopkins said it’s hard to find a place to locate the shelters.

“I think that there are some communities that feel that it would be a difficult population of individuals to take on,” Hopkins said. “The challenges that hit a community are really cited as reasons not to support a project.”

Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s Director of Homeless Policy and Outreach, acknowledged the annual struggle to secure winter overflow beds.

A photo of a 'No Camping' sign.
Emily Means
“No Camping” signs are posted throughout Salt Lake County. This one is on the same block as the Geraldine E. King homeless resource center for women.

At this week’s city council work session, he said there are many groups involved in the planning process, but there’s a gap in the ability to act on those plans. It depends on funding and whether a local municipality actually approves a land-use decision to site a temporary shelter.

“So when the [Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness] puts out plans, it doesn't mean they have the power to take action on them unilaterally,” Johnston said. “It doesn't guarantee there are other options immediately or ever, to be honest. Which is why, for a third winter, we're looking at the same discussions about where is everybody going to go?”

Wendy Garvin heads up the grassroots organization Unsheltered Utah, which provides outreach to people experiencing homelessness throughout Salt Lake City.

In her experience, she says people generally support the idea that other folks need a safe place to stay — just not in their neighborhoods.

“We really need to acknowledge that those folks are already in all of our backyards,” Garvin said. “All we are choosing is do we let them sleep inside and survive the winter? Or do we condemn them to a miserable or dangerous existence out on the streets?”

The St. Vincent de Paul dining hall in downtown Salt Lake is on track to open as an overflow shelter Oct. 18. Hopkins said the coalition tries to have overflow shelter available from mid-October to mid-April each year.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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