A new bill would force Salt Lake officials to come up with a plan for a winter homeless overflow shelter
For three winters, governments and nonprofits in Salt Lake County have struggled to set up an emergency homeless shelter.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is proposing some options in a new bill.
Essentially, HB 440 requires government officials in Salt Lake County to come up with a plan for at least one homeless overflow shelter by Sept. 1 — well before the first snow typically falls.
Then, that plan will be vetted by the Utah Office of Homeless Services. If the proposal doesn’t meet the office’s criteria, the state could operate a temporary overflow shelter at a state-owned facility in Salt Lake County.
Alternatively, the bill also allows homeless resource centers in the county to expand their occupancy up to what’s allowed under the fire code.
Eliason said it’s critical for unsheltered people to have options.
“At a bare minimum, I hope it will help people step out of the cold in the wintertime to at least a safe, warm place that they can stay for the night,” Eliason said. “But our goal, of course, is much broader. We need to keep people alive to hopefully step out of homelessness altogether.”
This winter, Salt Lake-based service providers have had a tough time opening — and keeping open — overflow shelters. Just this week, the Weigand Center overflow had to close due to lack of staffing. The former Ramada Inn, which both serves older people with medical needs and acts as an emergency overflow shelter to the general public, also took a long time to open.
One of the reasons for the difficulty is it’s a tough ask for cities to operate a shelter. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has made clear that she believes the capital city has had to “bear a higher responsibility than other municipalities in the state to provide shelter and services to the state’s homeless population.”
City officials didn’t have much to say about Eliason’s proposal at this point.
"We appreciate that Rep. Eliason is always willing to tackle this difficult issue,” said Andrew Wittenberg, a spokesperson for the mayor. “We are still working through the details of the bill."
But Wendy Garvin, who provides community outreach through the group Unsheltered Utah, said it’s a solid solution. She said a lack of available shelter during the winter is the “single biggest problem we've got.”
“It's really frustrating,” Garvin said. “It's really emotional because the majority of what we do right now is tell people, ‘I'm really sorry, we don't have the resources for that.’”
The bill also provides additional funding for cities to mitigate the impacts of homeless shelters.