Despite Limited Housing Alternatives, Road Home Says It Will Beat the Clock to Relocate All Downtown Shelter Families

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justina Shields, with her children, left to right, Laila, William, Maliha, and Averyonna, at the Road Home, Thursday, July 13, 2017.

The homeless-service provider received $500,000 in additional state funds to support the relocation effort, and though some of its associates have privately expressed concern about an overall reduction in family shelter capacity, Minkevitch said it presents a “special opportunity” to line up permanent housing for greater numbers of vulnerable people.

Justina Shields said before signing her lease Thursday — with a child in each arm and two more sitting beside her on a bench in the shelter’s empty courtyard — that she had hardly slept since she was approved for housing two weeks earlier.

The 27-year-old single mother said she lost her last apartment when a roommate couldn’t come up with her half of the rent. Her children’s father is in prison for domestic abuse, and nobody in Shields’ family had room under their roof for five more. So, in March, the father’s aunt dropped them at the shelter.

Nearly five months later, Shields’ eldest, 5-year-old Maliha, ate hot-lime Cheetos and smiled for photos during a break from packing. Younger brother William watched cartoons on a phone. Shields, meanwhile, described the trick to mothering at the shelter: “You can’t let them see you crying.”

Of critical importance to Shields were the friends who babysat her kids when she had to walk to the convenience store, or take her youngest to the hospital with a fever. Staffers have been “really nice,” she said, and donations of food and clothes were incalculably helpful.

Shields knows her lease is no golden ticket. The three-bedroom apartment will cost her $1,100 per month when her subsidy runs out in September. She begins work at a call center Monday, and she believes she will soon need a second job.

But “I can make it through anything,” she said, having seen some proof of that.

The removal of families from the shelter has long been agreed upon as a worthy goal. In 2015, a group of area developers, business owners and residents known as the Pioneer Park Coalition brought in Texas-based homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, who said it ought to be the area’s first priority.

But Salt Lake’s constricting affordable housing market makes it challenging to find places that families will be able to afford when subsidies run out, and the needs of homeless families has at times far exceeded the 300-bed capacity in Midvale. At peak population last winter, homeless children alone could have filled the Midvale beds.

Thanks to the increased state support, about 80 families exited Road Home shelters in June — up from the usual of about 60 — but 65 more came in.

As The Road Home made its Friday-evening push toward emptying the downtown family wing, Minkevitch said he expected remaining families to be relocated to some combination of permanent housing, the Midvale shelter and motels. About a dozen “housing-ready” families at the Midvale shelter would also move to motels to make way for the weekend’s newcomers.

Unless more affordable housing becomes available, The Road Home may need to more frequently use motels as an intermediary step between shelter and housing.

About nine families were sent to motels last winter, Minkevitch said, and Road Home staff is working with law enforcement to identify motels with the least criminal activity.

“The one thing we’re not going to do as a community is to say to a family, ‘We’re turning you away tonight,’ ” he said.

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justina Shields, with her children, left to right, Laila, William, Maliha, and Averyonna, at the Road Home, Thursday, July 13, 2017.

State funding hinges on the shelter’s effort to find a safer place for children, women.

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The reduction in family capacity provides a test case for state, county and city leaders as they pursue an even more dramatic cut to the broader homeless population.

State funding for three new shelters is tied to the closure of the Rio Grande Street shelter by July 2019.

Also, the combined capacity of the new shelters is expected to be 400 beds fewer than exist now.

Minkevitch said it may be an uncomfortable time, but so was the implementation of permanent supportive housing, for which Salt Lake City was later praised nationwide.

Plus, Minkevitch said: even a slight relaxation in the rental market would do wonders.

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