Salt Lake City’s Homeless Population Faces Another Setback as Shelter Succumbs to Earthquake

Salt Lake City Rescue Mission after Earthquake hit

Day Shelter Still Lacks Sinks to Help Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

As the first rays of sunlight peaked over the jagged peaks of the Wasatch Mountains into the Great Salt Lake valley, a fault line below the city slipped. Everywhere in Salt Lake City, old windows shattered, old beams buckled, and old pipes broke.

When the rumbling and shaking finally stopped after the magnitude 5.7 earthquake on March 18, piles of bricks and rubble lined the street outside the Salt Lake City Rescue Mission, the city’s oldest homeless facility. The 120-year-old building was deemed at least temporarily unlivable. And the 140 or so people who’d sought shelter there found themselves homeless once again.

Ogden’s mayor thwarted attempts to find room for the displaced people in the organization’s sister facility in Ogden, refusing a request for an emergency declaration to allow the Ogden building to accommodate a few extra bodies.

Mike Mathieu, Ogden’s fire chief, said that he understood the need to find additional housing for people experiencing homelessness. But he couldn’t in good conscience “look the other way” and allow the Mission to “flout” fire code regulations. This was a frustrating answer when so many were suddenly faced with nowhere to shelter. As any Utahn knows, the spring snows can be the heaviest snows of the year in Utah.

After some scrambling, however, the Mission located a retired county recreation complex that had been closed for about a year.

The displaced men quickly set about turning it into their temporary home.

The Mission’s director said it was unclear how soon the organization’s damaged downtown building would be operational again, or how much it would cost to get there, noting that he was seeking community donations to cover repairs.

Opening late last year, Salt Lake County’s three brand new homeless resource centers were pitched as a better way to move people experiencing homelessness off the streets for good. The goal was to shift from a warehousing model to a full suite of services including breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; case management and housing assessments, among other amenities.

That was the idea, anyway.

But now the resource centers have suffered major workforce shortages as staffers stay away due to concerns over the coronavirus. The brave few who have remained are tasked with working double shifts just to keep the doors open. Virus fears, funding shortages and now an earthquake have made conditions so challenging that the facilities have to limit the very resources that are meant to help people exit homelessness. Housing help has stopped for all but those who already had paperwork in the pipeline.

I spent most of 2019 as a homeless person in Salt Lake City.

It tears at me to see the situation that my former friends and neighbors face. There is a sudden and tragic confluence of threats against Utah’s homeless population. The large downtown shelter that once held 1,100 people is a vacant lot now, the building torn down and removed. The three small resource centers that replaced it were badly over capacity and underfunded before they even opened. With a capacity of only 700, that short-sighted plan left hundreds out in the cold.

The Weigand Center day shelter where over 200 homeless people spend their days have literally zero sinks for the men to wash their hands, not an ideal situation with a deadly new virus lurking. I have personally written my elected representatives and relevant local leaders repeatedly about this situation, and yet it remains unchanged. The last communication that I got said that the building’s plumbing would be repaired sometime in June. That might be tragically too late. Somehow, the COVID-19 virus has not struck the vulnerable homeless population here in Utah. I shudder to think of what could happen when it does.

At least the earth has stopped shaking now. The aftershocks appear to finally be over. As far as good news goes, that’s about all there is.


Kip Yost

K Marlo Yost

     

K Marlo Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in a small apartment in Salt Lake City. He has a Computer Science degree from Snow College.

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