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Midvale Journal

New Sandy homeless shelter caters to the needs of the medically vulnerable

Apr 09, 2024 11:51AM ● By Rebecca Olds

Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski and Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, present the new MVP Program building during a ribbon cutting ceremony in early 2024. (Photo courtesy of Sandy City)

A new Sandy homeless facility opened in January with a unique mission among Utah’s homelessness aid scene. Its goal is to provide interim housing not just for those experiencing homelessness, but for medically vulnerable people such as veterans, those aged 62 and above, and those experiencing health challenges while living on the streets.

“I call it ‘Most Valuable People,’” said Pamela Atkinson, longtime advocate for those experiencing homelessness and namesake of Utah’s Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund referring to the MVP initials that stand for “Medically Vulnerable People.”  

“To have a special place where you've got challenges like they have, I think it makes a huge difference,” she said. “It says we recognize you have extra challenges, we recognize you need different facilities and different accommodations, we care about you, and (you’re) just as valuable as anybody else.”

“Once people start feeling special, then I think that gives them hope.”

Three organizations—The Road Home, Fourth Street Clinic and Shelter the Homeless—have tag-teamed efforts to maintain the building, staff volunteers and security, and provide medical care to guests.

The first of its kind in Utah

A general homeless shelter includes bunk beds that leaves very little space for maneuverability when wheelchairs and walkers are needed, said The Road Home’s Executive Director Michelle Flynn. With private and semi-private rooms at the MVP facility, those suffering with medical conditions can have a little more space to receive specialized help before a case manager can help them find a more permanent residence. 

The idea for the MVP shelter first started when COVID-19 hit and social distancing was mandated. During that time, The Road Home partnered with Salt Lake County to rent hotels which helped those most at risk isolate.

“Unfortunately, the funding ran out and we had to close it,” Flynn said. “That was like a terribly devastating day when we had to vacate.”

The new building will be permanently fixed on serving those experiencing homelessness from more vulnerable populations including 62 years old and older, and those with medical frailty. 

An important distinction is that it’s not meant to be an emergency overflow when other shelters become full. 

“We don't want it to become a discharge location for anybody who's experiencing homelessness or who's leaving the hospital,” Flynn said. 

Instead the shelter functions off of a need-based waiting list, where most residents will only stay 30 to 90 days before case managers help them find more permanent accommodations, Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski told the City Journals.  

Zoltanski was the one to first give the idea to repurpose the Econo Lodge Inn & Suites located at 8955 S. 255 West, said Flynn. But among several locations that were considered in different cities, Sandy was the most welcoming and supportive.

The shelter brings new purpose to the building. The pool was filled in to be used as a group activity space and several safety features such as the sprinklers, fire hydrant, and windows were updated to comply with the building’s new safety requirements. 

Eventually, the building will include an on-site clinic. But for now, the large Fourth Street Clinic bus sitting in the parking lot takes care of any medical needs. 

Close to a month after opening, the center has filled more than a third of its capacity of 165 people and is anticipated to be filled by Oct. 1. 

Homelessness is a housing problem

At the shelter’s opening event on Feb. 29, Gov. Spencer Cox called homelessness a “state problem.”

“In 2023, approximately 30,000 Utahns accessed services from homeless systems throughout the state,” the governor said. 

The Road Home has sponsored shelters for those experiencing homelessness in Midvale, South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City for years. But more recently, the need for more space has become desperate as rates of homelessness rise across the state and the country, Flynn said.

With Utah as a real estate hotspot, rents and prices are rising and displacing people making a bigger need for affordable housing, Flynn said.

State legislation is working to increase the amount of starter homes to 35,000 in five years to provide more affordable housing per Cox’s briefing after this year’s legislative session. 

But as Flynn put it, “housing is a slow moving ship.”

Since before the beginning of the year, The Road Home’s Midvale Family Resource Center has been particularly hard as it struggles with an influx of people needing shelter—not all of whom are Utahns. 

“We are seeing more people coming in through the migrant route, and that’s another piece adding to our challenge of not having enough space,” Flynn said. “Because there isn’t a facility or a program right now for migrant families that’s separate and they are showing up in our homeless services system.”

Flynn said as migrants seek asylum, there’s an added difficulty of communication and paperwork that the shelter is not equipped to handle.

Though there has been an influx of people needing shelter, Utah is the state with the lowest rate of homelessness west of the Rockies, reported Axios. 

Cox, along with Atkinson, encouraged Utahns to donate “even a few dollars” to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund which can “significantly help Utahns experiencing homelessness” and continue to give aid to shelters.

Cox filled out a large tax form, donating $50 to the fund. 

Certain donatable items are listed on The Road Home website as well as information for volunteers.

“I think we just need to remember that it's the kindness and the caring, as well as the actual donation that helps to change people's lives,” Atkinson said. λ