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West Valley City Journal

West Valley City winter overflow homeless shelter offers a place to stay….and hope

Feb 09, 2024 04:23PM ● By Darrell Kirby

A former state liquor store at 3380 S. Redwood Road is now a temporary winter homeless shelter. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)

Things are looking up in the world of Bruce Rodriguez. 

The 35-year-old Salt Lake City native recently returned to Utah after spending time in Arizona. “I was homeless,” he said. “I came here to have a better life.” He attributes his homelessness to “my situation, my decisions,” without elaborating. 

The climb to what Rodriguez hopes will be a “better life” has already begun. He recently got a job at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant and is saving money to eventually land an apartment. For now, he also has a place to stay, though it’s not ideal.  

He, along with 170 other people on this January day, were staying at a temporary winter overflow shelter inside a former state liquor store in West Valley City. The shelter at 3380 S. Redwood Road opened Nov. 1 and will operate through April 30 with funding from the state and other sources. 

It is managed by St. George-based nonprofit Switchpoint which partners with government agencies and other organizations to provide homeless services, including case management and running shelters like this one. 

Paulina Barrios is the shelter’s director of operations. “We are here to support the homeless resource centers (in Salt Lake County) throughout the wintertime,” she said.  When those centers are full, she explained, the homeless are referred to overflow facilities like the one in West Valley City.

The West Valley City shelter is open only to single men and couples 18 years and older and their pets if they have them. A cat on a leash could be seen in one corner of the shelter. Couples stay in one section of the facility while the single men take up the rest of the floor space. Barrios knows some of the obstacles faced by the shelter’s residents, having experienced homelessness and addiction herself earlier in life. 

The living and sleeping areas are separated by cubbyhole-type shelves—leftover from the liquor store days—where shelter residents store their belongings ranging from clothing, shoes and toilet paper to a wide mix of food such as Hostess cupcakes, ketchup, cereal, coffee creamer, soda, canned goods and more.  

Larger items are kept in PODS storage containers in the parking lot. Trailers with portable restrooms and showers are parked just outside the building. There is also an outdoor smoking area. 

What makes this overflow shelter somewhat different from other local shelters is that it operates 24 hours a day. People who check in can stay all day and night for as long as needed during the shelter’s six months of operations. Some shelters limit the number of nights the homeless can stay and require them to leave during the day. 

Barrios says that 90% of the occupants are regulars and 10% are new check-ins each week. “We’ve been at capacity since our third week of operation.” The checkout stands from the old liquor store are now used to check in newcomers to the shelter where staff gather their information, and search their belongings every time “guests,” as they’re called, enter the building, including scanning to detect weapons or other prohibited items. “We don’t really get any pushback from the guests. They’re all pretty comfortable here,” Barrios said. Also of note is the lack of any visible security people in or around the shelter. It turns out that, at least at this particular shelter, the less security, the fewer the problems. One shelter dweller said people tend to look out for others or not cause issues in hopes they, too, will be left alone. 

Kenneth Reed and his companion Helen Carter have been staying at the overflow shelter since just after it opened in November. Reed, 52, says he has been without a permanent home for the past year and a half. He blames it on “money mismanagement,” despite making a decent income when he worked. Reed says he is now retired. “Housing is so expensive now,” he said. He and Carter, who is 40, bounced around among different hotels and shelters for six months but grew weary of that. “It’s just non-stop movement. You never know from one day to the next. Your stuff is always getting stolen,” Reed said.  

The two appreciate the relative stability of the West Valley City shelter. “Here it’s safe. It’s kept us out of the cold and a roof over our heads,” Carter said. Both, however, say the facility has some jail-like rules and restrictions. “There’s a reason for that—the structure,” Reed said. The pair are waiting on permanent housing, which is made more difficult by their relationship status. “There’s a lot more available for singles than there are for couples,” Reed noted. “If there was more housing for couples, then it would be easier,” Carter added. 

Barrios says cities in the area that host overflow shelters are required to do so only once every three years unless they bid to do it more frequently. “The community has been really welcoming in West Valley,” she said, citing donations of food, money and labor. “We’ve been trying to be good neighbors as well.” λ