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Salt Lake City Council allows homeless resource centers to expand capacity through summer

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday to allow several homeless resource centers to continue to expand capacity beyond the base level until the end of October.

Andrew Johnston, the city’s director of homeless policy and outreach, updated the council on current conditions and a request from the state that several homeless resource centers be allowed to operate beyond capacity. The shelters would need approval from the council through a temporary zoning regulation amendment to move forward with the state’s request.

Several homeless resource centers were flexed beyond capacity as part of the winter overflow response, with bed availability generally beginning to scale down in April. Those beds have been used in full throughout the winter months, and are still hovering around 97% capacity, according to state data, which Johnston said “is functionally full.”

“It is springtime, though, we do see some flow in and out a bit in that time,” he said.

In recent years, the Salt Lake City Council and administration have changed how homeless resource centers, both temporary and permanent, are approved. The winter overflow expansion was included as part of the Salt Lake County winter response plan, with a temporary land use regulation for a specific location for up to 180 days. Now, as the deadline approaches, the council would need to approve another request to extend those beds until October.

“The State Office of Homelessness Services this year received additional funds than in previous years for operation, statewide, for homeless resource centers and other programs. They have the funding to continue shelter operations past winter for those winter beds through the summer, if the providers agree and if cities agree, as well,” Johnston explained. “That’s the foundation for this request.”

The request includes the Geraldine E. King Resource Center, Gail Miller Resource Center, Volunteers of America Youth Resource Center and St. Vincent de Paul. Additionally, the council would need to approve a 60-day land use regulation for the microshelter community, with the expectation the state would find another location for the community by August.

“We believe it’s in the best interest of Salt Lake City and those experiencing unsheltered homelessness to be able to stay indoors through the summertime — with the state funding, with the operators being willing and able to do this,” advised Johnston. “The only other things here that might be appropriate to think about (is) the Winter Services Task Force has identified the need for 900 to 1,000 beds next winter.”

District 2 Councilman Alejandro Puy asked whether the city would receive additional funds from the State Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Fund, which is intended to alleviate the impact on cities hosting eligible emergency shelters. But since the request is to flex capacity, and falls outside of winter overflow, there would be no allocation from the State Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Fund.

“That’s disappointing,” said Puy, adding. “It is a big deal to see the state working towards 900 to 1,000 additional beds all year round. It’s just, it’s huge.”

New shelter, code blue and winter timelines

The State Office of Homelessness has been given funding for and is seeking a location for a permanent shelter containing about 600 to 800 beds. The hope for a larger permanent shelter is that it fills the gap in beds that prompted winter overflow services and can operate year-round.

“That could come to fruition very quickly. It could kind of come to fruition in months or even years from now. I think everyone’s expectation is to be sooner than later,” Johnston said. “And that if it potentially came into effect in the next six months, depending on what it is and the feasibility of how quickly you could open up, it could also change the dynamic of this and the winter planning for next winter. But that’s unknown at this point.”

If the permanent shelter does not come to full fruition in that time, approximately 900 to 1,000 beds need to be identified as part of the ongoing winter response plan.

“Is the 900 to 1,000 inclusive of the ‘code blue’ or do we still expect for any of us who live in a community that hosts an epicenter for this? We’ve always known 600 was not enough,” asked Victoria Petro-Eschler, who represents District 1. “I want to make sure that if we do this the first time we’re going to do it as well as possible, as comprehensively as possible. I would like for public spaces to not be spaces that a population has to depend on. Do we have an accurate understanding of the magnitude that we need to plan for it to get to a place where public spaces can return to public spaces and not be someone’s living room?”

That answer is dynamic, said Johnston. He said the intention is to move away from relying on “code blue” beds, which are needed based on outside temperatures, and to establish more base beds. The utilization of those beds has remained high but external factors such as inflow or outflow from other counties, housing trends and eviction rates can impact that number.

“A large number of people came in this winter and stayed inside voluntarily,” Johnston said. “They came in. They’re there all winter and they’re still there, which is a good sign in a lot of ways. As we go back to the streets and folks who are camping still or spending a lot of time outside, there are some folks who still would definitely come in immediately if there’s a bed available.

“It’s good to be dynamic about it.”

The council unanimously approved the temporary land use regulation requests at the formal meeting.

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