Is This a New Approach to Homelessness in Utah?

The Road Home has been through many changes since opening in SLC in 1923, and its latest iteration could represent the most impactful change yet. Originally founded as the Travelers Aid Society to help stranded travelers, the agency has developed into one of Utah’s most prominent homeless resource centers. In November 1988, The Travelers Aid Society opened its first permanent shelter, The Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center on 210 S. Rio Grande Street. And in 2001 the Travelers Aid Society was officially renamed The Road Home.

Michelle Flynn, the Executive Director of The Road Home. Photo by Adam Finkle.

The year 2018 marked another big change for The Road Home when it was announced that The Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center would be closed following the opening of three new shelters and resource centers; the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center, the Gail Miller Resource Center and the Midvale Family Resource Center.

There was much speculation about this transition. Former Mayor Rocky Anderson, for example, said during his recent campaign that the phasing out of the Salt Lake Community Shelter wasn’t handled properly. But the process has been more successful than you might think, and Michelle Flynn, the Executive Director of The Road Home, believes that it came at just the right time. Why? Just months after the new shelters opened their doors, the COVID-19 pandemic began.

According to Flynn, the three new resource centers allowed for more space between people. Wayne Niederhauser, Utah State Homeless Coordinator, added that while the old shelter is roughly the same size as one new resource center, it could end up housing up to 1,100 people during peak winter. That’s a high density of people in the best conditions, let alone during a deathly pandemic.

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The Pamela Atkinson Resource Center serves single men and offers a wider variety of resources—meals, showers, blankets, laundry, clothing and access to case managers. Photo Courtesy of The Road Home

Additionally, the new centers offer a wider variety of resources and are better equipped to tend to individual needs. Such as three meals a day, showers, blankets, laundry and case managers to help those experiencing homelessness create a plan and connect them with other housing resources. Each center is designed to support certain groups of people; The Pamela Atkinson Resource Center focuses on helping single men, The Gail Miller Resource Center serves all single adults and the Midvale Family Resource Center helps families reestablish a steady foundation. Both Flynn and Niederhauser agree that the new resource centers are a healthier, more supportive environment than the old Rio Grande shelter.

While joint efforts among nonprofits and state organizations have certainly had their successes, homelessness is still on the rise. A large proportion of the people who make up this rise in homelessness are known as a “transitional population.” These are people who are experiencing homelessness due to one or more life events. “What we see, especially for that transitional population, is that people are living on the edge of their income and housing keeps going up and their income doesn’t go up to match it,” says Niederhauser, Utah State Homelessness Coordinator, on the rise in homelessness. According to a report by The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, between January 2021 and July 2022 Utah experienced an inflation rate of 15.4%, which translates into an extra $910 of monthly household costs. For many, this was the difference between stability and homelessness.

Since 2005, The Road Home has been taking a “housing first” approach. Photo courtesy of The Road Home.

Since 2005, The Road Home has been operating under a “housing first” approach to homelessness. A housing first approach prioritizes getting people off the street and into permanent housing solutions as quickly as possible and advocates consider it a national best practice. State homelessness organizations, such as the Utah Homeless Council, have since adopted this policy as well.

However, the problem with a housing-first approach remains a lack of affordable housing. When it comes to deeply affordable housing, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute reported a grim statistic of only three available units for every 100 households that need one. This means that there are only three units of a certain price available for every 100 households that can only afford that price. Another major problem is a lack of case managers. Having a sufficient number of case managers is a paramount to intensive care. However, there is currently a high turnover rate for this position, possibly as a result of being overworked as each case manager is on average responsible for 35 different cases at one time.

The solution to these problems is ongoing, but homeless service advocates and state officials agree that the path forward begins with more funding for homeless resource centers and subsidized public housing. Niederhauser says on of his biggest successes in the last year in regards to addressing homelessness is securing grants for housing from the legislature. He has secured $105 million in housing over the last two years, 5 million of which is ongoing. This has produced about 1,800 units of deeply affordably housing across the state.

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Photo courtesy of The Road Home.

Unfortunately, this still leaves a long way to go. The current deficit is 77,000 units.

City officials took another major step to address homelessness last year by officially implementing Code Blue with the passage of bill H.B. 440. In addition to creating the Utah Homeless Council, this bill created a process in Salt Lake County in which mayors meet with the county to create a winter response program. Before this policy was implemented, there was no official procedure for providing winter overflow beds. Niederhauser says this usually resulted in Salt Lake City taking the brunt of the responsibility for caring for homeless individuals. It also meant that winter overflow beds often were available in December or later when harsh winter conditions were already well underway. Thanks to Code Blue, winter beds were up and running by November last year.

Going forward, officials have identified four targeted outcomes by 2027 as outlined in Utah’s Plan to Address Homelessness. These outcomes are: to create or identify 574 housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, increase supportive service each year by 20% and reduction of vulnerable subpopulations of chronically homeless–veterans, survivors of domestic violence, youth and people with disabilities–by 7%.

MVP PROGRAM

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Another program known as the MVP (Medically Vulnerable People) project is underway. The MVP program will provide interim housing and medical services to seniors, veterans and the medically frail (such as those with a compromised immune system) who are experiencing homelessness. Applications for the program will be opening this spring.


Michaelis Lyons
Michaelis Lyons
Michaelis is a current Editorial Intern for Salt Lake Magazine and a recent graduate from Westminster College.

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