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Confusion Over Shelter Space Lingers As Homeless Residents Stay On Streets

Photo of the Road Home Shelter.
Jon Reed / KUER
Homeless service providers in Salt Lake County have gone through a rocky transition after the Road Home Shelter closed last month.

After the Road Home shelter closed last month, homeless advocates worried there wouldn’t be enough beds. Now, recent reports say some of the 700 available beds at three new resource centers in Salt Lake County are going empty.

During a two week period from Nov. 22 through Dec. 5, the shelters had about 50 beds available on an average night, according to the Deseret News.

But the numbers change by the hour. As of Friday afternoon, the Utah Community Action emergency shelter hotline said only one bed was open — two less than what had been available that morning. 

Slim, a woman who is experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City and who would only provide a nickname, said that’s not enough for the 60 to 70 people she estimated to be outside the Salt Lake City Library Friday afternoon. 

“There’s a lot of homeless people out here,” she said. “They can’t fit in one bed.” 

Shelter space has been an ongoing concern as cold weather sets in and the region continues to transition towards a new homeless service model. Amid those concerns, homeless advocates have also expressed worries over law enforcement cracking down on the residents who remain on the street. 

Salt Lake County’s homeless population — estimated to be around 1,844 people — is small compared to major western cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, but the city still makes efforts to control public encampments.

“There are different ordinances across the country that maybe focus more on just being in public space,” said David Litvak, deputy chief of staff in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office. “That is not what Salt Lake City’s ordinance does.” 

Litvak said the city is more focused on public health and safety rather than criminalizing homelessness. 

Salt Lake City has an anti-camping ordinance that makes it illegal to set up a tent or shelter on public property. That gives law enforcement the ability to clean up encampments, as long as they work within a federal court ruling which protects people sleeping outside from arrests or citations if adequate shelter space isn’t provided. 

Michael Ruff, public information officer for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said the city and federal rules don’t usually come into conflict. 

“We’re very well aware of what that [federal] law is and we make sure we comply with it,” Ruff said. “Before our officers can take action on any camps, we actually have to contact the shelters and verify there is space available.” 

If space does run out at the new shelters, other options are available, including the St. Vincent de Paul overflow shelter for men and motel vouchers for women, Litvak said.

Despite those options, Ruff said a lot of people don’t want to leave the street.

“If we’re speaking with 20 people and 19 are telling us we’re not gonna go, I can’t force them to go to a shelter,” Ruff said. 

That’s true for Slim, who said she doesn’t have much interest in staying at the new shelters and would rather focus on getting into housing. She said she would look for a tarp or some plastic to set up shelter for the night, even if that means she might be asked to leave.

“People like me, people out here, they give up and they chose to just stay out here because it’s a lot easier,” she said. “It’s what they know.”

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