An old Salt Lake City Ramada helped as a shelter but it wasn’t a homelessness solution
It’s been about three months since the former Ramada Inn that served as Salt Lake City’s temporary winter homeless shelter closed its doors. Part of the space was specifically set aside to serve people 65 and older and those with special health considerations.
Eric Hanson lived there from January until April. He has a lot of medical issues — he needs a liver transplant and he’s a cancer survivor — and the ex-Ramada was a welcome reprieve from the cold.
“Somebody on the street told me about it,” he said. “At that point, I had frostbite in my fingers. I couldn’t feel anything. So I was like, I got to get this taken care of before I lose my damn finger or something.”
The Salt Lake City Division of Housing Stability recently analyzed the outcomes at the Ramada. There were two programs there: the high-needs hotel, which was open from mid-January to mid-April, and the nightly overflow shelter, which started in mid-February.
In total, the cost of operations and public safety was $2.3 million.
The hotel portion served 168 clients. Not everyone was accounted for once they left the program, but of those who were, 22 people were permanently housed and 43 went to emergency shelters.
But 46 went back to camping on the street.
Hanson, a 73-year-old veteran, was one person who had no idea “where the hell he was going” once the hotel closed.
He enjoyed his time there, and the staff was very kind. But he felt his case got “lost in the chaos” of the situation.
“It's a real shame because I felt the intent was very strong,” he said. “I had somebody that was supposed to help me, and they did. They had good intentions. Everything went well for one or two sessions, and then everything just fell through.”
The Road Home operated the Ramada over the winter. Executive Director Michelle Flynn praised many aspects of the program, like its collaboration with the Fourth Street Clinic and how it filled a gap for this specific, vulnerable population.
But one of the main roadblocks to connecting people to services and housing, Flynn said, was time. The Ramada launched late in part because it was difficult to find staff for the facility.
“I think the biggest thing that we were challenged with the program this winter was not having the ability to open it early enough,” Flynn said. “Then needing to close it down in compliance with our permissions from the city left us with not a lot of time to work with the individuals who are in this program who have such high needs.”
External factors also exacerbated the situation, like Utah’s shortage of affordable housing.
Ian Harris, a case manager who oversaw the Ramada’s operations, said that was a reality both staff and their clients had to come to terms with.
“One of the hardest parts of case management is learning the web of resources that is out there and then finding out that it doesn't quite meet the need,” Harris said. “We were doing a lot of educating on how difficult it is to get housed. Our group — being mostly seniors — most of them haven't had to worry about housing in a long time.”
Of the $2.3 million spent, nearly half was state dollars. State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said temporary winter shelters aren’t ideal. What communities really need is more deeply affordable and supportive housing.
“The reason why we spend $2.3 million on shelter to save people's lives is we don't have the housing options available to get people off the street,” Niederhauser said. “That's the bottom line issue that we're facing here and all across the nation.”
Closing the Ramada’s doors was hard on people who lived there, like Eric Hanson, but also on staff. Flynn said it was such a traumatic experience that the Road Home won’t operate a temporary program like that again.
“We just think, in the long term, it's not the successful solution that we really need,” she said.
Flynn said service providers and the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness are working on a permanent version. They’re trying to find and buy a hotel to get the program up and running by winter.
Meanwhile, Hanson is back on the street. He’s living under an overpass where trucks and trains pass by all day long, blaring their horns and kicking up dust.
He said he would love to stay at a permanent version of a Ramada-like program — and “wouldn’t mind helping them manage the place,” either.