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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Toni and Don Roberts talk about trying to find work, being homeless and being a family at the shelter, at The Road Home which opens winter overflow shelter for the season, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, in Midvale.

MIDVALE — At the moment, the American dream is out of reach for Don and Toni Roberts.

Their immediate goal is to obtain the proof of identification they need to apply for an apartment at Palmer Court, a permanent supportive housing facility operated by nonprofit organization The Road Home.

For now, the couple and their 5-year-old daughter live at the Road Home's winter overflow shelter, which opened early to accommodate a growing number of families who needed shelter. The shelter had been scheduled to open on Nov. 1.

"It's certainly not because of the weather," said Matt Minkevitch, executive director of  The Road Home, of the early opening. "It's because of need."

Don Roberts has been out of work for three years. He went from working 40 hours a week at a convenience store to just 20. "You can't support a family on 20 hours a week," he said Wednesday.

He's now seeking work to better provide for his family. His wife is pregnant and his daughter was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The family's two-year plan is to move to Palmer Court and save enough money to get a place of their own.

While living in a warehouse full of double beds in the company of 38 other families is hard, it's a step up from living on the streets, as the Roberts did briefly this year.

The Roberts, who came to Utah from Arizona, have lived in homeless shelters four times in the past three years. The population of homeless people they have encountered has changed considerably because of the economic downturn, he said.

They've met many people who are living in homeless shelters for the very first time due to the loss of their jobs or homes — usually both. "They come into shelter and you can see the fear in their eyes," Don Roberts said.

Minkevitch said The Road Home is also experiencing an uptick in the number of single individuals seeking assistance as the economy continues to lag.

"It's going to be very challenging. We've got a lot of families that don’t have any employment," Minkevitch said.

The good news is the state's "housing first" practice has placed a significant number of the state's chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing. That has opened more emergency beds to help individuals and families on a short-term basis. About 88 percent of people who seek services at The Road Home experience one or two episodes of homelessness and "then, they move on," Minkevitch said.

The 12 percent of "chronic homeless" are in permanent supportive housing. "They don't come back into shelter either," Minkevitch said.

That cushion means there's space to cope with the emergent need for shelter by homeless families and individuals, people that Lloyd Pendleton, director of the Utah Department of Community and Culture's statewide Homeless Task Force, describes as "the new homeless."

"They're at the end of their rope. The last stop is the shelter or their car."

Don Roberts said a year ago, the family was living in supportive housing but had to leave when they could no longer pay their utility bills. They've pawned most of their possessions.

Still, he appears optimistic that their family will get back on their feet. He's trying to figure out how to provide Christmas presents to his daughter. Mostly, he wants to find a job.

"I've never had my own place. That's my dream," he said.

It's challenging but possible, Minkevitch said. Over the years, he has watched many homeless people turn their lives around — with a little short-term help.

"It never ceases to amaze me when I see these families chip their way out of it," Minkevitch said. 

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com