MIDVALE — Connie Crosby's voice trembled ever so slightly as she described to a group of state legislators Tuesday what is done for minors whose families have taken shelter at the Road Home's Midvale shelter.
"I would ask when you're making legislation ... please be mindful of our children," she said.
Crosby, the homeless student liaison for Canyons School District, listed a host of after-school activities, from science programs to dance, from coding workshops to soccer and theater, offered to those children and teenagers to reinforce a sense of normalcy in their lives.
"I want them to be as typical as they can be," Crosby said.
Members of the Legislature's Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee took their morning meeting on the road to Midvale City Hall on Tuesday before heading to the nearby Road Home family facility located a few blocks away from city offices.
The goal for the children staying at the facility, Crosby told members of the committee, is to "keep them out of shelter."
"We know it's not good for kids," she said, to spend too much of their day there.
The visit from legislators comes one day before a special legislative session to tackle issues related to Operation Rio Grande, a wide-ranging effort to tackle crime, drug addiction and mental illness on display in the neighborhood surrounding to the Road Home's shelter in downtown Salt Lake City.
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, told lawmakers the Midvale shelter has capacity for about 90 families, while the organization makes arrangements for about 45 to 50 other families on "any given night" to stay in hotels in the area.
State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he was concerned about where those hotels were located, saying some poor-quality hotels in the area have a reputation for drug use and prostitution problems. He asked Minkevitch whether the group takes that into consideration.
"We've avoided a number of hotels," Minkevitch replied.
Nearly 1,700 people are in housing for which the Road Home is "helping to pay rent for a temporary period of time," compared to the roughly 1,100 people who stayed in the organization's shelters as of Monday night, Minkevitch told lawmakers. He said "we are batting about .750" in ensuring families who are helped that way do not return to the Midvale shelter.
A report disrtibuted by Road Home officials said "demand for shelter is disturbingly high." The number of people projected to be served with shelter in fiscal year 2017 — 8,400 — is more than two-thirds of the number who were served in the five-year window of fiscal years 2004 through 2008, according to the report.
The number of families served with shelter has also skyrocketed, according to the report, from 288 in fiscal year 2008 to 764 served in fiscal year 2016, increasing each year, statistics from the Road Home show.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who sits on the subcommittee, said in an interview that the sheer volume of need in the state is a reason why the special legislative session is a good idea. She added that "this is not (only) a downtown issue."
"We're moving in the right direction by having the state actually seeing this in a comprehensive manner and not as an isolated problem. I think we're learning that if we're not investing in mental health and adequate access to care, we're going to be facing these problems that are way more costly after the fact," Escamilla said.
Road Home officials believe their efforts to house individuals have made a dent in Utah's homelessness problem. Their report includes data showing 3,492 people were put in housing in 2016, including 1,288 people in permanent housing.
Minkevitch told the Deseret News that more than half of families who move out of the shelter are able to do so "without financial assistance."
"Eighty-one (percent) of all people who stay in shelter at the Road Home receive case management services at some point during their stay," the report states.
For children and teens, arrangements are made at host schools to not only keep them busy and productive with extracurricular activities, but ensure they are properly fed while out of the shelter.
"When they are enrolled in school, they get three meals," Crosby said.
The first preference is for a child who comes to the shelter to stay with their current school rather than switching to a school in the Midvale area, though families are allowed to make their own decisions on a case-by-case basis, according to Crosby.
About 90 percent of young people at the shelter come from a situation where they were attending school somewhere in Salt Lake County, Crosby said. Canyons School District arranges for their transportation to school, while other school districts help fund and coordinate their return, she said. Being responsible for the youth at the shelter means "funding certainly is an issue," but the effort to help them is well worth it, she told legislators.
"We welcome the children here. We want them here," Crosby said.
Contributing: Peter Samore