SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Chances are, most residents in Salt Lake City passed the night during Tuesday’s hard freeze warning by bundling up at home, making themselves comfortable in bed under a couple of warm layers with the thermostat turned just right.
Some didn’t have any of those luxuries and were left to fend for themselves, unsheltered, in the cold, where the chill dropped to as low as 34 degrees during the night, just slightly above freezing temperature.
Every once in a while, news of an unsheltered person’s body found frozen to death hits the local media. The discovery of one homeless individual in the 1980s sparked an increase in efforts to provide adequate resources for the unsheltered, Laurie Hopkins, who works as the Executive Director for Shelter the Homeless, recalls.
Nowadays, keeping the most vulnerable sheltered during the colder months of the year is something Hopkins and her team work on practically all year long. While most of the homeless resource centers in the city are already quite full at about 90% capacity, Hopkins states that about 56 beds are available on average every night.
“There is the potential for the unsheltered to connect into one of the homeless resource centers,” she explains but adds that the need skyrockets as the temperatures drop. “One of the things that we’re most focused on is ensuring that people are safe.”
Typically, wintertime calls for 300 additional beds for the homeless. However, the additional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused that number to climb to an estimated need of 430-450 beds this year. Shelter the Homeless is working to piece together enough beds throughout SLC and other surrounding cities to accommodate the extra need. The St. Vincent Dining Hall and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center, both operated by Catholic Community Services, are both expected to lend their space to additional homeless overflow shelters. Another part of the equation is providing non-congregate shelters by creating partnerships with hotels or motels, to prevent transmission of the coronavirus to the most at-risk of the already vulnerable population.
Keeping the homeless well insulated during the day, when the cots are put away until the evening’s coordinated intake, is also a priority. Fortunately, clothing and blankets are always readily available at any of the homeless resource centers in town.
“There’s usually a very big amount of generosity coming out of the community here in Salt Lake County, in donating extra socks, gloves, hats, coats, blankets, things that are really important as the temperatures dip,” Hopkins tells ABC4.com. “All people have to do is come into those facilities and they will be able to obtain those resources. It’s something that we prepare for and ramp up for every year.”
While stocking up on beds and clothing are clearly vital to the survival of those forced to brave the harsh Utah winters without a place to call home, Hopkins calls the measures in place a “last resort,” and a temporary band-aid to a bigger problem. The solution, she says, is deeply affordable housing.
“We recognize that the most important thing for individuals is, is to be able to have a home,” Hopkins states. “We’re always asserting that deeply affordable housing is our top priority for the coalition.”
Until more affordable housing solutions are available, and a lot of help from federal funds and the state legislature will be needed to provide that, ramping up the overflow beds and doing the best with what is in place is the plan.
Those who have a few simple luxuries at home and are able to give are also asked to lend a hand as the cold sets in, Hopkins implores.
“I would urge the community to do what they can to support the homeless service providers by donating money or clothing or food or whatever they can to assist and help these individuals experiencing homelessness in the winter.”