Social Work

146 Mobility Consequences of Decentralizing Homeless Services and Shelters in Salt Lake County

Morrison Donovan and Sarah L. Canham (Social Work)

Faculty Mentor: Sarah L. Canham (Social Work, University of Utah)



How homeless services, including emergency shelters, are delivered and where they are sited have significant implications for people experiencing homelessness (PEH). Being able to access necessary services is important to PEH health, well-being, and autonomy. Using Salt Lake County, Utah, which moved from a centralized homeless shelter model to a decentralized resource center model as a case study, we investigated the impact of this transition on the mobility of PEH. We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 19 clients of three resource centers who had also previously stayed at the former shelter. Thematic analysis resulted in four broad categories, each with distinct sub-categories: 1) Pre-decentralization transportation and mobility, 2) Post-decentralization transportation and mobility, 3) Impact on quality of life, and 4) Recommendations. Participants’ recommendations for improving mobility conditions included the elimination of financial barriers associated with public transportation use and expanding access to transportation networks from the resource centers.


Utah has witnessed a concerning rise in rates of homelessness since 2016 (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2021), which the State of Utah Annual Report on Homelessness attributes to the lack of available affordable housing, wage stagnation, limited employment options, and decreasing household incomes, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Department of Workforce Services, 2021). Homelessness is an enduring policy challenge with community-wide implications for how to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness (PEH), including the provision and maintenance of homeless shelters and services.

Decisions on where to site homeless shelters and resources face significant pressures from local interests, which has contributed to the historical and enduring concentration of homeless services in economically marginalized areas (Brinegar, 2003). Jocoy and Del Casino (2010) identify how “spatial mismatch” occurs when PEH are isolated from community services and economic centers and the negative influence of centralized models on mobility, travel behaviors, and needs of PEH. Centralized models isolate PEH from social and economic centers and affect their transportation demands and mobility patterns (Jocoy & Del Casino, 2010).

The decentralization of homeless services has been proposed to counteract the concentration of current services and the systematic spatial exclusion of PEH from economic and social opportunities (Brinegar, 2003). In 2016, Salt Lake County, Utah began the process of transitioning from a centralized homeless shelter located downtown, known as The Road Home’s Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center (TRHSLC), to a decentralized model of shelter services through smaller emergency shelters called Homeless Resource Centers (HRCs). Decentralization in Salt Lake County provides a case study to investigate the impact of this model on transportation access and mobility patterns of PEH.

Research Questions:

1) How does decentralization influence transportation and mobility behaviors for PEH?

2) How have transportation and mobility changes affected access to basic services for PEH?

3) How have transportation and mobility changes resulting from decentralization affected quality-of-life among PEH?


We conducted in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews with PEH to address our research questions. We then used inductive qualitative analytic methods to identify patterns in the data and nuanced understandings of a relatively unexplored phenomenon (Braun & Clarke, 2006)—how decentralization affected PEH mobility, transportation needs, and access to services. Ethics approval was obtained from the University of Utah Institutional Review Board and participant names were removed to protect identities.

Participants were recruited from the HRCs, with help from service providers in identifying clients who had also received services from TRHSLC. In total, 19 clients consented to an interview across the three HRCs. Seven interviews were conducted at the Men’s Resource Center, in which all the participants identified as male, aged 22-70 years old. Six interviews were conducted at the Gail Miller Resource Center (GMRC) with three participants identifying as female and three identifying as male, aged 33-60. Six interviews were conducted at the Geraldine King Resource Center, in which all participants identified as female, aged 37-64. Twelve participants self-identified as Caucasian, and eleven had achieved the equivalence of a high school diploma or higher education. All participants were unemployed at the time of the interviews.

In-person, semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants in April and May 2021. The length of interviews ranged from 10 to 100 minutes (mean = 41 minutes). All interviews were audio-recorded and auto-transcribed by Sonix and edited by members of the research team. Participants were given $20 gift cards to local grocery or convenience stores for their participation. Inductive qualitative analytic methods were used to identify common themes in the data, using NVivo data management software. Patterns identified by the researchers were discussed during team meetings, as well as with the project advisory committee. After an iterative process of labeling and rearranging the data, a final set of themes was agreed upon by the project team.


Findings were organized into three broad categories, each with distinct sub-categories (Table 1): 1) Pre-decentralization transportation and mobility; 2) Post-decentralization transportation and mobility; 3) Impact on quality of life; and 4) Recommendations to improve transportation access for PEH. Below, we present each category and sub-category with representative quotes from participants, with reference to the specific HRC where the participant was staying.

Table 1: Thematic categories, sub-categories, and definitions

Pre-decentralization transportation and mobility
Pre-decentralization convenience of transportation and proximity to services and entertainment Pre-decentralization, transportation services were characterized as convenient to PEH staying at the TRHSLC for their proximity to the central downtown location, relatively reliable schedule, and reduced cost barriers.
Pre-decentralization transportation challenges Pre-decentralization challenges included the costs of transportation outside the Free Fare Zone, the limited services available within the Free Fare Zone, the challenge of walking long distances, and the time investment of using public transit.
Post-decentralization transportation and mobility
Proximity of the HRCs to public transit Post-decentralization, participants described the proximity of the HRCs to TRAX stations and bus stops
Availability of Advantage Shuttle Post-decentralization, participants described the availability of an agency shuttle to use as an alternative to public transit.
Availability of daily or monthly transit passes Post-decentralization, participants described the ability for the HRCs’ case managers to provide transit passes or tokens to clients at no cost.
Challenge of the HRCs being further away from downtown and increased time commitment to use transit Post-decentralization, participants described the HRCs’ distance from the central downtown area of Salt Lake City and the subsequent increase in time invested in using public transit as a transportation challenge.
Challenge of accessing public transit for PEH with mobility limitations Post-decentralization, participants described the difficulty for PEH with mobility limitations to walk to transit stops.
Cost barriers of using public transit outside the Free Fare Zone Post-decentralization, participants described the cost barriers of using transit given that the HRCs are sited outside the Free Fare Zone
Impact on Quality of Life
Improved Facilities and Services through the HRCs Led to Improved Health and Quality of Life Participants described how the decentralization process and transition in shelter systems positively impacted their quality of life. Improvements in both the physical facilities of the HRCs and the case management and resources offered to clients, and improvements in general health outcomes led to reports of improved quality of life among PEH.
Mobility Barriers Associated with HRCs Negatively Impact Quality of Life


Despite the improvements in facilities, services, and health outcomes, barriers to mobility from the HRCs were reported to negatively affect quality of life post-decentralization.
Transportation Access Represents an Escape The shelter environment can represent a constraint to well-being by constraining individual freedoms, and transportation access and freedom in mobility serves as a remedy.
Eliminate cost barriers to transportation for PEH To eliminate cost barriers to transportation, participants made recommendations to provide free transit, to provide HRC clients unlimited transit linked to their services card, to expand the capacity of HRCs to offer transit passes, and to base the cost of transit on a person’s income.
Increase access to transportation from HRCs Recommendations for increasing access to transportation from the HRCs included expanding UTA bus service, the Advantage Shuttle service, and the Free Fare Zone.

In addition to the themes identified in the table, an additional theme, identified is the idea that transportation access and freedom in mobility represent an escape from the shelter environment and a way for PEH to retain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Quality of life was significantly negatively impacted by reduced mobility for many participants. One participant explained the impact of their reduced mobility:

Some of us used to liken [TRHSLC] to a concentration camp, because you couldn’t go anywhere without showing a card… what little bit of freedom you did have, it seemed like you lost it… I rode TRAX a lot because I could leave. I could go from the Road Home right up to the library, I could still have a little bit of normalcy… I don’t [go to the library anymore], I can’t get to it… Being stuck in a shelter, not good, but I think this one’s [the GMRC is] actually worse than the Road Home was because like I said, I could get around more, I could actually get out of it.

Discussion and Conclusions

The findings of this study contribute to the existing body of literature on the relationships between homeless service delivery systems, PEH’s access to economic and social opportunities, and the importance of access to affordable transportation networks among PEH. Investigating the impact of decentralizing homeless shelters and services in Salt Lake County, Utah on mobility and transportation use among PEH revealed a few consistent trends: transportation access was described as generally more convenient from the centralized system, with fewer associated cost burdens, and challenges to mobility post-decentralization included increased time and financial investments to access services. The respondents’ quality of life was positively impacted by facility improvements that were conducive to better health outcomes, and negatively impacted by the post-decentralization constraints to mobility. Eliminating cost barriers to public transportation networks and expanding UTA access from the HRC sites were the primary recommendations offered to improve PEH’s mobility post-decentralization.

The location of homeless resources and shelters also has important implications for well-being among PEH because of the impact that shelter locations have on mobility and the need for transportation. While mobility and access to public transportation has long been acknowledged as a factor that can contribute to social isolation and exclusion, mobility has been more broadly connected to one’s well-being through its effect on people’s ability to fulfill psychological needs (Stanley et al., 2011). Stanley et al. (2011) suggest that travel exerts an indirect influence on well-being through its direct impact on social exclusion. This is supported by the findings reported by participants who encountered challenges and barriers to transportation, destinations, and services. The negative impact of barriers to mobility were cited as the biggest change in many people’s lives after the transition. Because mobility is a cornerstone of self-determination and many of the psychological dimensions of well-being, a reduction in mobility represents a big life change for PEH, who already encounter significant disruption and instability. Transportation access and mobility are central to well-being as they represent not only an escape from the shelter environments, but a way to retain a sense of normalcy, autonomy, and routine.

To combat the economic and social marginalization of homeless populations that can be wrought by centralized and decentralized models of homeless shelter service delivery systems alike, transportation access must be a key policy priority and component of siting decisions. Participants offered several recommendations that strengthen the evidence that transportation access and freedom are central to well-being. Eliminating cost barriers was identified as a key priority by participants, which could include expanding the Free Fare Zone, allowing HRC clients free transit through their services card, expanding the availability of tokens and transit passes offered by HRC case managers, or adjusting transit costs to account for a person’s income. These recommendations implicate the need for coordination between UTA and the HRCs to rectify the mobility challenges posed by the locations of the HRCs while prioritizing free public transit access to clients, who are now located beyond the Free Fare Zone. Other recommendations participants made included expanding transportation access from the HRCs, including expansion of UTA services, specifically by increasing the frequency of transit stops and expanding the availability of UTA buses to transport PEH to TRAX or the Free Fare Zone. Expanded frequency and flexibility of shuttle services were also described as a remedy to the transportation challenges associated with the HRCs. Transporting PEH to the other HRCs or to TRAX and the Free Fare Zone would create a more affordable and convenient transportation network. 


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RANGE: Undergraduate Research Journal (2023) Copyright © 2023 by Morrison Donovan and Sarah L. Canham (Social Work) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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