During bitter-cold weather, no one is being turned away from the Salt Lake City Community Shelter and Resource Center, according to the director of the program that runs shelters for single men, women and families.
"We're very full, but we're still not turning people away," said Patrick Poulin, director of Travelers Aid. "The men's shelter has had 310-315 men in it over the weekend. Last night it jumped to 332. We have room to squeeze in 350 while it's so cold. And we have a back-up plan if we exceed that."We have had a couple of rooms open in the family shelter and we can take more women if we need to."
Poulin said that some of the people in the shelter are men who traditionally stay in "homeless camps." The subzero weather has driven indoors some of the men who normally try to avoid shelters.
Last week, the phones in the mayor's office and the shelter rang off the hook with callers dismayed by a report that the shelter was turning people onto the streets.
"We weren't," Poulin said. "But apparently someone called a radio talk show and said that and got everyone upset. We even got hate calls from people. The radio station didn't check with us; we would have told them it wasn't true. But I only heard about it second-hand."
Normally, the shelter won't let people who are disruptive stay. But while it's so cold, Poulin said they would be allowed to stay in the lobby of the shelter. Anyone who is seriously intoxicated will be turned over to the police for placement in a detox facility.
Despite the freezing temperatures, several homeless people told the Deseret News that they preferred to stay outside the shelters for a lot of reasons, including fear of crowds.
Ed, a homeless man originally from Oregon, said he wouldn't stay in the shelter because they don't take pets. "Mike (his dog) has been a lot of miles with me. And I'm not leaving him alone in the cold. He's my family."
Sunday, a transient froze to death beneath a viaduct in Salt Lake City. He was in a sleeping bag that could not protect him from the record-low temperatures. But the people who operate services to the homeless said that he could have gone into a shelter, had he chosen to.
"Everybody knows about the shelters," said Joe Winterer, director of St. Vincent De Paul Center. "In most cases - I'd say 99 percent - if someone's out there in the cold, it's by choice. The homeless people tell each other about the shelter."
Winterer said the Salt Lake Homeless Coordinating Committee, which is made up of several groups that serve or advocate for the homeless, has an outreach program. People visit the encampments to tell the homeless individuals there about services, including Salt Lake's shelter network.
"The word's on the street about the shelter," Poulin said. "And we go out to the encampments at least once every two weeks.
"It's a tragedy anyone dies in this weather. If we get too many people, say over 350, we'll let them all in. It may not be the most comfortable place, but it will be warm. And the next day we will assess whether we need to set up cots across the street (in St. Vincent De Paul's dining room)."