Homeless initiative means there's extra room at the inn

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 11:48 p.m. MST

Shawna Lechtenberg works as a substitute teacher at a Head Start program in Palmer Court, which was converted from a hotel to 201 units of permanent housing.

Laura Seitz, Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in more than 12 years, not a single man was housed at The Road Home's overflow shelter in Midvale this winter.

It's a significant milestone and yet another indication that the community's "housing first" initiative is working, said Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home.

"Last night, we had 99 beds available in the downtown shelter, which is unprecedented," Minkevitch said. "It's a tribute and testament to the kind of housing that our community created, in its thoughtfulness — permanent housing and supportive services for singles and families."

Palmer Court, which was converted from a hotel to 201 units of permanent housing, provides housing and on-site intensive case management for individuals and families who have been in a long-term state of homelessness. It works cooperatively with Valley Mental Health and Volunteers of America, as well as government agencies that oversee employment, food stamp eligibility and health care coverage. The facility also houses Head Start programs, which also include infant and toddler child care.

The over-arching goal of the education component is to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness, Minkevitch said. "It is quite feasible they will never experience homelessness."

After nearly six months of living at The Road Home shelter downtown, Shawna Lechtenberg and her sons moved into Palmer Court in October. Palmer Court has provided her young family stability and easy access to services. She also works as a substitute teacher in the Head Start program. Her family is enjoying the stability of permanent housing after unemployment forced them into homelessness.

"There are resources here. People want to help. Out there, we're a dime a dozen," she said.

At Palmer Court, "We're able to be a family. There (the homeless shelter) we always had to look around and check everything."

Stuart Cowles moved from the Regis Hotel, a low-rent dwelling on State Street, to Palmer Court about 1 ½ years ago. He enjoys having a private room and shower as well as the privacy of living in his own space. "It's clean. It's a lot more comfortable. I feel a little bit of safety," he said.

Like Lechtenberg, Cowles has a job at Palmer Court. He helps clean the facility.

Darin Beane, a caseworker for The Road Home who works at the facility, said he helps clients apply for Social Security, food assistance and connects them to other programs in the community that may be helpful. The office also helps arrange transportation to medical appointments and food pantries. Each of the units is equipped with a refrigerator, stove and refrigerator. "The units are fully furnished when the clients come in, everything including the pots and pans."

Beane said the work is especially rewarding because they are witnessing results and the clients appreciate their efforts. "The people here are thankful and grateful when a caseworker helps them with even the littlest of things."

Utah's rate of chronic homelessness fell 42 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the state Comprehensive Report on Homelessness released last fall. It attributes the decline to a 10-year initiative that places the homeless in housing sooner and connects to services to deal with issues that contribute to homelessness. The state, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and nonprofit agencies as well as churches are partners in the long-range plan.

Minkevitch said he anticipates even greater declines in that rate as more of the chronically homeless enter such housing options.

Minkevitch said he has observed profound advances in the community's approach to serving the homeless during his 23-year tenure in Utah. Two decades ago, it was common for men, women and families to spend the night on the sidewalk outside the shelter when no beds were available.

"No sooner did the shelter open, in a very short period of time, it was filled to capacity," he said.

The next step was opening the overflow shelter in Midvale, which is wedged between two railroad tracks in an industrial area of the city. Now, use of the overflow shelter has been reduced.

Hopefully, a larger share of the unsheltered homeless — those who live along the Jordan River, in abandoned buildings and on the streets — can also be convinced to move to permanent housing, Minkevitch said.

"We want to continue to bring people in from wherever they may be and move them from desperation to stability."

e-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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