SOUTH SALT LAKE — Still smarting from a critical state audit that found widespread drug use and lax rule enforcement within its homeless shelters, some worry the Road Home's reputation is casting shadows on its future within the state's new homeless system.
State leaders and the owners of the future homeless centers currently under construction are confident the Road Home will get a fresh start and manage the 300-bed men's shelter well when the downtown shelter shuts down next summer.
But some South Salt Lake leaders aren't so sure.
South Salt Lake City Council Chairman Ben Pender said he and other council members were "disappointed" when they learned last week that the Road Home had been selected to manage the future homeless center chosen for their city. Two other agencies were selected to manage the others.
"The audit is troubling, and so is their record with Salt Lake City," Pender told the Deseret News this week. "Look what happened to Salt Lake City. Clearly, they were running the shelter up there and allowed it to get to that point."
"In some ways," Pender added, "It's troubling that we reward bad management and give them the biggest shelter in the state again."
But, Pender acknowledged, the issues around the downtown homeless shelter likely weren't just the Road Home's fault, but rather a combination of factors and a lack of attention from all partners before hitting crisis levels.
For more than three decades, the Road Home has functioned as one of the only homeless service providers in the state, and for years it strained under growing pressure.
Last year, the issues in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood reached boiling point. Before state leaders stepped and launched Operation Rio Grande, the streets around Road Home's downtown shelter were a hotbed for open air-drug dealing, drug use and violence.
Before he selected the South Salt Lake site for the third homeless shelter meant to replace the Road Home's downtown shelter, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams secretly spent a night in the shelter to better understand challenges. The mayor said he experienced "shocking" conditions, including blatant drug use inside the men's dorms.
But since then, there's been an unmistakable shift in the Rio Grande area. Homeless camps are no longer concentrated on the streets, though they have scattered on a smaller scale to other parts of the city. Police have reported decreases in crime and violence in the area.
And in response to the state audit, the Road Home also overhauled its policies and procedures and implemented new security measures, including metal detectors, bag checks and increased security staffing.
Since last summer, the Road Home also changed policies to prevent daily queuing outside its doors, and its occupancy has declined with new requirements that families with children must go to the Midvale family shelter.
To Pender, the fear is South Salt Lake will have the same challenges Salt Lake City saw. But throughout the yearslong overhaul of the Utah homeless system, county, city and state leaders have repeatedly said the new model — with three new, smaller homeless resource centers at scattered sites — will be completely different, and much more manageable than the more than 1,000 beds once filled at the downtown shelter.
To Pender, that's the hope. Though he said South Salt Lake has been "stuck" with the shelter, he hopes city leaders can work with the Road Home, its owner Shelter the Homeless, and state leaders to address any future concerns.
"I'm hoping as those problems arise that we can address them quickly so it doesn't become big issues like they became in Salt Lake City," Pender said.
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood — who sits on Shelter the Homeless' board — said she expressed concerns about the Road Home being selected for the South Salt Lake City and it was her "responsibility to ask hard questions and demand suitable answers."
"I think I've been very vocal regarding my concerns, but now is the time to work closely with the Shelter the Homeless board and the Road Home to ensure the operations model meets the needs of not only its residents, but also our neighbors," Wood said.
Wood also credited the Road Home for making changes to its policies and procedures, as well as its security plan in addressing concerns in the audit.
"I think my concerns are along the lines of a new model that really hasn't been tested," Wood said, noting that she's also hopeful any lingering concerns with the Road Home will be addressed in the second part of the city's conditional use permit slated to come before city leaders in coming weeks.
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, said Wednesday he was confident the Road Home had addressed concerns outlined in the state audit and that his agency was the right choice to manage the 300-bed men's shelter.
"We have confidence that we will manage it properly," Minkevitch said. "But most importantly, I look forward to working directly with South Salt Lake. We look forward to having an ongoing dialogue with South Salt Lake, listening to the residents and leaders of South Salt Lake. And the genesis of that dialogue is underway.
"We have a long way to go, but we're looking forward to it," Minkevitch said.
During last week's news conference, Minkevitch said the problems that faced the downtown facility were symptoms of larger societal issues that now have more resources committed from state, city and county levels to address.
"The sheer numbers of people turning to one location created security and safety issues with which we were very concerned," Minkevitch said last week. "The new model provides us greater dispersion, distribution and a better environmental advantage for each person turning to shelter."
"Collaboration is always a key ingredient to community improvement," Minkevitch added Wednesday, crediting state partners with providing the Road Home resources it needed to improve, along with many other agencies working at unprecedented levels to address issues ranging from housing, to mental illness, to addiction.
In fact, even one of the Road Home's past top critics is vouching for the nonprofit in its new role.
Former state Sen. Scott Howell, member of the Pioneer Park Coalition that formed to lobby for improved conditions in the Rio Grande area, said this week the selection of the Road Home to operate one of the new shelters was "not unexpected" since the nonprofit has such a long history of providing homeless services in Utah.
"Rightfully so, (South Salt Lake leaders) should have concerns if you look at the old model of the Road Home," Howell said, "but with the new model, I think they can feel confident."
Howell said he believes the Road Home will be a good neighbor to South Salt Lake because "they took the audit seriously," and also have new resources from the state to be successful.
"Reputations take a long time to heal and clean up and change, but everybody can change," Howell said. "I'm very confident with the leadership (of the Road Home) and Shelter the Homeless to set the data metrics that will absolutely change the face of how we deal with homelessness."5 comments on this story
Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, said it's understandable there are "lots of opinions" floating around about the new homeless model since homelessness is a "complex" issue. But above all, "it's going to take all of us working together to come up with solutions."
Cochrane said comparing the Road Home's past with its future is like trying to compare "two completely different universes."
"We need to focus more on how the system is operating versus who," Cochrane said, "and not get stuck on a particular name or past. Let's move forward. Out with the old, in with the new."