Homeless families face limited options going into winter

Nov 2, 2023, 9:22 AM

Midvale Road Home...

The Road Home's Midvale Family Resource Center in Midvale. Families with children who are experiencing homelessness face limited options for the second time heading into winter temperatures. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

MIDVALE, Utah — Families with children who are experiencing homelessness face limited options for the second time heading into winter temperatures.

Last winter was the first since 1998 that families with children were turned away from shelter due to capacity. With the state homeless dashboard reporting the number of children accessing emergency shelter up 8% in Salt Lake County this year, homeless advocates fear that once again families will face limited options this winter.

“Last year we were caught off guard by a sudden surge in the number of families experiencing homelessness — that was something that we didn’t anticipate. It was a year where we expanded the overflow shelter response during the winter. And then the entire conversation was solely about childless adults — nobody was worried about the response for children and then suddenly there were kids sleeping outside and it was snowing,” said Bill Tibbitts, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center.

“The overflow units coming online this winter, those are not for families, they’re explicitly for other people and there’s a need for them. I don’t want to reduce the number of childless adults who come indoors, we just need to make sure that this winter there’s enough places indoors for kids,” Tibbitts added.

An estimated 600 winter overflow units are scheduled to come online as part of the Salt Lake County winter homeless response. An additional family shelter was purchased by the state for families in South Salt Lake but has not yet been approved. Tibbitts estimated the shelter likely won’t open until February or March.

“This year the focus has been on developing a permanent solution,” said Tibbitts. “What we didn’t do adequately, it seems, is come up with a plan for getting through the winter until that facility opens.”

The Midvale Family Resource Center is currently at capacity and nearby shelters have been near full as well. Motel vouchers have been another option in the past when shelters have been at capacity. The Road Home has used the funding for the vouchers for 12 families already, with no more to spare.

“We’ve been full for some time — over a year now — but what that really means is that we don’t have open beds on an ongoing basis. We’re currently full, but that availability changes day to day as we are helping people move out into permanent housing,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home. “If we can’t find a spot for them at that point, we will refer them to other resources and then ask them to call in daily.”

On March 15, which is the most recent date with data available on the homeless data dashboard, only 36 people out of the 353 staying at the family shelter on that day had been there for less than nine months. Only 17 had moved in within the last 30 days.

Utah Community Action provides diversion assistance at the Midvale Family Resource Center, to help families explore other options they might access outside of emergency shelter. Between July 1 and Sept. 30, Utah Community Action worked with with 114 households and ultimately diverted 12 households.

“Most of the resources that they’re going to be referring people to are not places to sleep. If there are either not enough shelter beds or a voucher, the families can be reverted to resources like Crossroads Urban Center’s food pantries where they can get help with food and formula and diapers and possibly help getting putting gas in their car but it’s not a place indoors to sleep,” said Tibbitts.

When diversion is not possible and the shelter is at capacity, families can be referred to other shelters. Families have been transported to the Lantern House in Ogden when they are willing to go there and when space is available.

“It’s our impression lately that they also have been a lot more full so we’ve had less opportunity to lean on them for additional support because they’re seeing a lot of need up there,” said Flynn.

With rising needs and little capacity, Tibbitts is calling for additional funding for motel vouchers to meet the immediate needs of the families and Flynn is calling for additional support to keep families housed.

“It’s a lot better for the children to never spend a night in shelter. So as we’re continuing facing this, this crisis of not enough emergency shelter for families, which is definitely a crisis in our community, we also want to make sure that the emphasis continues to also be on how we keep families housed,” said Flynn. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a good prognosis on housing costs going down in any significant way. And the availability of those units that are more affordable is pretty scarce.”

Related: Help the homeless in Utah by shattering myths, says Utah advocate

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Homeless families face limited options going into winter