Utah is considering building its biggest-ever homeless shelter

Posted at 4:39 PM, Jun 07, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — Wendy Garvin parks her car just off North Temple, next to the site of what will eventually become a new Major League Baseball stadium.

She gets out, opens the trunk of her car and begins handing out bottles of water, ice and cereal bars to people who approach off the streets.

"You guys can take as much water as you want!" Garvin told people, scooping ice into cups to hand out.

"Thank you so much," a man replied. "You’re amazing."

Garvin is with Unsheltered Utah, which helps those experiencing homelessness. She said she is just trying to keep people alive in a heat wave. She told FOX 13 News on Friday that she is seeing more people living on the streets.

"We're seeing bigger camps, more people on the street, we’re seeing more evictions and we’re seeing a rapid increase of people on the street, despite the fact that there are more shelters," Garvin said.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state of Utah's homelessness coordinator, said there is a need for 800 to 1,000 more shelter beds. The shelters that do exist in the Salt Lake Valley have increased capacity over the past couple of winters to get people out of the cold.

To alleviate the situation, Niederhauser confirmed to FOX 13 News that he is exploring the idea of building an 800-bed shelter. If constructed, it would be the largest in the state.

"We need a spot that’s going to have some acreage to accommodate what we need," he said Friday. "And that’s difficult to find. I think the best thing for me to say today — because we can’t talk about sites and specific locations or cities — is that we’re going to need probably at least 20 acres."

Niederhauser has been scouting potential locations around the Salt Lake Valley. That is how FOX 13 News came to learn of the idea of a "super shelter." The Utah State Legislature has funded $25 million toward a new shelter.

"We're looking at kind of a campus where you would have other types of facilities," he said. "Services like step-down facilities for mental health, addiction services, we think that having those in one location would be economical and just more conducive for what we need for a larger number of people that would be sheltered."

FOX 13 News contacted several communities who were unaware of plans for such a big shelter, but were curious to see the plans and how it would impact them should it be located there. There are currently small shelters in Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, West Valley City, Millcreek, Midvale and Sandy.

"There is a tremendous need for more supportive housing and emergency shelter services. We are supportive of Wayne’s efforts in locating and opening additional services in Salt Lake County," said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City's director of homeless policy and outreach.

But Niederhauser and others are bracing for a lot of "not in my backyard" depending on where the shelter is located.

Governor Spencer Cox, who has pushed for more housing and homelessness funding on Utah's Capitol Hill, delivered a speech on Thursday to homeless services providers and lawmakers at The Other Side Academy, where he called for compassion but also accountability when it comes to dealing with unsheltered people.

"We’re just on the verge of getting it right for the first time in our state’s history," he said.

He reiterated his opposition to people camping on the streets and insisted that any funding would be accountable to taxpayers with results. Asked by FOX 13 News about plans for a large shelter following the event, Gov. Cox replied: "There are not plans currently, but there are plans for additional beds and we’re working on what that will look like."

Niederhauser conceded it is possible they don't build one large shelter, and continue the model of smaller shelters scattered around. However, he does think that both approaches to addressing homelessness would be needed.

"Systemically, we’re going to need all of it," he said. "We’re going to need our scattered site shelters and a campus to meet the need."

Garvin said she supported Niederhauser's idea of a big shelter. Ideally, Garvin said, she wants people put into housing. But she argued there's not enough affordable, empty apartments to help everyone right now.

"A large shelter is a tough sell to the community, but my plea to all of you watching this is if we don’t build a shelter? All of these folks are going to be living in your back alleys and your backyards," she said. "That’s not good for them and that’s not good for us."

Unsheltered Utah said it welcomes volunteers or donations to help provide water and resources to those experiencing homelessness. Garvin said it currently costs her organization about $75 to buy enough water to keep people hydrated. To find out how to help, visit their website here.