Audit finds ‘serious concerns’ about substance abuse and safety at Road Home shelters

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new audit released Tuesday found "serious concerns" for the health and safety of homeless people staying at emergency shelters and a housing complex operated by the Road Home.

The audit, released by the Office of Legislative Auditor General on Tuesday, described weapons, drugs, overdoses and other security concerns for those staying in the shelters as well as the public at large.

"During nearly every visit, we found some evidence of drug use," the audit said. Audit manager Brian Dean said they observed residents dealing drugs and exchanging money for bags out in the open as if residents knew there wouldn't be consequences.

The audit found similar problems at the Midvale shelter and Palmer Court, a housing complex the Road Home operates. It said both the downtown shelter and Palmer Court had inadequate security, which it described as "alarming." At Palmer Court, the audit also identified missing smoke detectors, window screens and animal feces and urine in some units.

The audit stated that residents brought in weapons. In one case, audit supervisor James Behunin said a resident was found to have brought in a loaded handgun to the Road Home's downtown shelter, but it went undetected by staff.

It wasn't until police arrested the man that the gun was found. And it turned out, Behunin said, that the man was banned from the shelter a couple nights before, but was somehow admitted back in anyway.

Behunin said they found children were exposed to drug paraphernalia. He said a 7-year old discovered a crack pipe in the children's play area of Palmer Court.

The audit suggested that due to rampant drug use, some homeless people avoided staying at the Road Home's downtown shelter.

"We interviewed 21 homeless individuals who we met on the streets of Salt Lake City and asked whether they stayed at the downtown homeless shelter," the audit said. "Nearly a third said they chose to spend their nights on the streets rather than at the shelter."

The audit criticized the Road Home for inadequate screening procedures downtown, no screening at all at the Midvale shelter and tolerating drug use at Palmer Court. It also said rent collection at Palmer Court seemed "optional" (residents owed a collective $438,000 in back rent).

Auditors called for better oversight by the Road Home, including enforcement of its own rules. It also suggested that the shelter's "low barrier" standards of entry worked against it.

"While we are impressed by the Road Home's commitment to serve some of Utah's most disadvantaged individuals, we fear the organization's tender-hearted approach to serving the homeless population leads them to discount the importance of accountability and control," the audit said.

The legislature has demanded more audits of homeless services as it prepares to spend millions on new shelters across the Salt Lake Valley. "Operation Rio Grande," a crackdown on crime surrounding the downtown shelters, has already cost taxpayers millions of dollars. This audit could affect money headed to those shelters and the non-profit.

In a response to the audit, Road Home executive director Matt Minkevitch said they would be taking steps to comply with recommendations. Chris Action, board president of the Road Home said those steps would include working together to confirm their standards, and a process to enforce them.

Action said they're also in the process of developing a safety and security joint committee.

Minkevitch said Operation Rio Grande has improved the area around the shelter and has improved quality of life for people at the shelter.

"Please bear in mind that the vast majority of services that we provide are trouble free," Minkevitch wrote.

He noted that the shelter faces federal, state and local audits every year. Minkevitch suggested that more money needs to be spent on affordable housing and homelessness.

"Making a significant impact on the people who are turning to shelters or camping in our streets who are suffering from illnesses without the benefit of treatment, or the tens of thousands of Utahns who live in poverty and are on the brink of homelessness, will take a collaborative effort that has, in our agency's perspective, yet to reach its potential," he wrote.

Read the audit here: