Relocation of Homeless Resource Centers to Salt

How can relocating services away from a city center change the transportation decisions and habits of homeless people? And how do these changes affect access to the services they need? New research from the University of Utah (UU) examines the impacts of decentralizing homeless service locations through a case study in Salt Lake County, Utah.

Prior to 2019, resources for homeless people in the county were concentrated in one location: The Road Home – a non-profit social service agency located downtown in the free TRAX streetcar fare zone. In 2019, Salt Lake County moved to a decentralized, dispersed site model with multiple shelter locations. The downtown shelter has closed and three new Homeless Resource Centers (HRCs), run by various providers, have opened outside of downtown Salt Lake City.

Funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), UU researchers Sarah Canham, Jeff Rose, Ivis Garcia Zambrana and Shannon Jones surveyed customers of the three new HRCs (106 respondents) and conducted qualitative interviews with 19 HRC clients who had previously accessed services at the old downtown shelter. They also interviewed 24 service providers and decision-makers involved in homeless services in the region and conducted spatial and statistical analyzes of proximity to basic and essential services for clients of the three new resource centers. The final report offers policy and practical recommendations to alleviate transportation issues that arise when homeless services are restructured.

“Transportation needs to be key in designing and siting services. Transportation and access to basic resources are so intertwined; we need to think from a more comprehensive planning framework,” said Sarah Canham, lead researcher on the project.

The research team will present the results of this study in a webinar on April 20: The impact of decentralization of homeless services on transport and mobility.


“In a previous study, we found that transportation tends to be the biggest barrier to families’ access to food, which impacts on restoring stability and maintaining stable housing, for homeless families,” said co-researcher Shannon Jones.

Overall, people using HRCs tended to travel less once the centers were moved. Survey respondents indicated which community services (such as churches, stores, libraries, parks, pharmacies and other destinations) they used before and after decentralization. After decentralization, visits to many of these destinations have declined – in some cases by as much as 40%.

Additionally, professionals and providers reported that an increase in transportation issues after decentralization contributed to some people experiencing homelessness being reluctant to travel to resource centers, decentralization has resulted in more people camping homeless in Salt Lake City.

Survey respondents rated transportation convenient to the Old Downtown Resource Center, due to its proximity to downtown services and amenities. One interviewee recalled being close to malls and grocery stores, as well as “Pioneer Park – we could walk there. And it’s nice there, especially in the summer, and they have a farmers market and all, it’s a really nice place. Liberty Park is another one because of TRAX, they have a free zone up to fifth south or second east.”

After decentralization, some common themes have been identified from experiences shared by clients:

  • Less proximity to public transport: The results of the GIS spatial analysis suggest that there are fewer transit stops within one mile of each HRC compared to downtown, and that bus service from each of the centers tends to be more accessible than light rail service.
  • The free shuttle is limited: The option of using a partner organization’s shuttle free of charge as an alternative to public transit was well received by respondents. However, participants indicated that it did not meet all of their needs. As one interviewee explained, the lack of flexibility to get to places other than specified stops was a shortcoming: “They only take you to shelter addresses.”
  • Limited availability of free daily or monthly passes: Obtaining free travel passes and tokens from HRC case managers was described by participants as inconvenient and unreliable, as demand often exceeded supply. “Most of the time they tell us they have nothing for months. It’s like, are you kidding me? … I’ve been trying to get them since late February,” one interviewee explained.
  • A greater distance from the city center means longer public transport times: Less centrally located shelters affect their ability to get to other places, such as medical clinics and other services that are still centrally located.
  • Challenges for people with reduced mobility: Participants reported how difficult it is for people with limited mobility or other health conditions to walk to transit stops. In many cases, these challenges have been compounded by the increased distance to bus stops and the condition of the built environment (such as lack of sidewalks, broken pavement, and construction barriers) outside of the center. -city.
  • Cost-related barriers to using public transit outside the free fare zone: Many participants traveled less often because resource centers are located outside the free fare zone. One interviewee explained that she no longer goes to the public library, once a frequent destination for her, because of the burden of paying for public transit and the risk of getting a ticket for traveling illegally, and subsequent negative consequences that interactions with the justice system have on housing and job security.


Based on survey and interview data, the research team made several recommendations for policy makers and practitioners to improve the mobility of homeless people. Several of these improve on-demand transportation options:

  • Develop carpooling and bike-sharing programs to meet transportation challenges. Partner programs could arrange free or discounted fares for Uber or Lyft, and bike-share programs.
  • Increase the availability of shuttles through additional funding to resource centers that could support a more robust van model with more staff and vehicles.
  • Increase the frequency of public transport while reducing costs. As one service professional pointed out in an interview, “On lines where we know there are homeless shelters, it would be great to have more bus lines.” Another service provider said, “I think the first thing we could do is remove the financial barrier associated with roaming to take the bus or take TRAX.” Although participants acknowledged the possibility for some users to obtain free or discounted UTA public transport passes, the eligibility criteria limit these programs.

Beyond improving on-demand transportation options, other recommendations include:

  • System transportation and navigation education such as public transit use, free or discounted pass programs, and existing resources.
  • Increase funding for the operation of resource centers so that more resources are on site, as well as funding for transportation resources to improve client mobility.
  • Reflection and dialogue around the results of decentralization. Service providers who were interviewed highlighted the need to regularly survey HRC clients to identify their unmet needs, including transportation issues.

Following these recommendations would not only benefit people experiencing homelessness, the researchers note, but also everyone who lives in the city.

“Everyone benefits from the services. For example, if you install a park bench, the poor will benefit, but the rich also want park benches. As with the transport network, improving the service benefits everyone. world,” said co-researcher Jeff Rose. .

This research was funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, with additional support from The Road Home, Salt Lake City, University of Utah, and Volunteers of America.


Understanding the Mobility Impacts of Decentralizing Homeless Services in Salt Lake County, Utah

Sarah Canham, Ivis Garcia, Jeff Rose and Shannon Jones; University of Utah


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The National Institute of Transportation and Communities (NITC) is one of seven National University Transportation Centers of the U.S. Department of Transportation. NITC is a program of the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University. This PSU-led research partnership also includes the Oregon Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, University of Oregon, University of Texas at Arlington, and University of Utah. We pursue our theme – improving the mobility of people and goods to build strong communities – through research, education and technology transfer.

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