Bill houses unsheltered in churches, rec centers when temps turn deadly

Mar 1, 2023, 6:00 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2023, 10:12 am
A bill would expand shelters and open other buildings not zoned for the unsheltered, such as church...
FILE: A man stands at one of three homeless tent camps in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill would expand shelters and open other buildings not zoned for the unsheltered, such as churches, when the temperatures outside is so cold it’s life-threatening.

To address the needs of Utah’s homeless people, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, (House District 43)is sponsoring H.B. 499 Homeless Services Amendments, under which;

The state Department of Health and Human Services would determine a Code Blue when temperatures reach 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Code Blue would require resource centers to expand capacity by 35% and allow other entities to open warming centers.

Eliason joined KSL NewsRadio’s Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic to discuss his bill.

“So practically speaking, this legislation — if it all gets through Capitol Hill and is signed by the governor — what does this look like out on the streets?” Debbie asked.

Warm places on a frigid night

About 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. In 2023 alone, three unsheltered people died in Provo. And just one month before that, five unsheltered people died on the streets of Salt Lake City.

“We’ve seen, just this winter, upwards of a dozen unsheltered individuals freeze to death just between Salt Lake and Utah counties,” Eliason said.

Under his bill, when outside temperatures dip below 15 degrees, ‘Code Blue’ is triggered.. It opens — without any zoning approval at all — churches, community centers, and other facilities to homeless people to prevent a loss of life in bitterly cold conditions.

“If our other shelters are full, we need this kind of automatic mechanism to protect people,” Eliason said.

“Could a school be turned into — like during the winter break — be turned into a shelter on a moment’s notice?” Debbie asked.

“I think it could,” Eliason said. “The reality is that we have a lot of different other facilities like rec [recreation] centers that would have showers and bathrooms [that are] maybe be a little bit more flexible, but the goal is to provide options so we don’t have to — in the moment — declare an emergency.”

“There is space oftentimes in shelters that goes unused because folks are choosing not to go, even when there is availability. Do you address that [in your bill]?” Dave asked.

“There’s always going to be a number of people that are shelter-resistant. However, when it gets really cold, we find even those people will typically seek refuge in a church or a rec center if that becomes available,” Eliason said.

Advocate for unsheltered joins show

Wendy Garvin is the executive director of Unsheltered Utah. Her group constructed an unsanctioned makeshift warming tent on Jan. 31 on a below-zero night for homeless people in Salt Lake City. Afterward, Salt Lake County opened a warming center for the unsheltered.

Garvin said the Code Blue law is a good one.

“I am thrilled with it,” Garvin said. “We set up tents because it was the only option we had at the time.

But I 100% agree with Rep. Eliason. The best solution is to put people inside of safe buildings with fire suppression, with heaters, with showers and to provide them with services that we all have access to on a regular basis.”

Some homeless reject shelters

Dave asked why the bill opens extra shelter beds only when the temperature is below freezing.

“Why would it just be a few days. Should this be a larger bill that would allow this to be the case basically whatever it is deemed necessary? Why only 15 degrees?”

Garvin said Eliason’s bill has two parts. One addresses overflow beds being available throughout winter when shelters are full. The other part addresses the homeless who are reluctant to go inside shelters.

“There are some people who don’t prefer shelters, maybe because of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]  incidents or maybe they had a bad experience at a shelter. So they only come inside when it is life-threatening. And that’s the population that the Code Blue bill best represents,” Garvin said.


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.  

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Bill houses unsheltered in churches, rec centers when temps turn deadly