Katie McKellar

(Utah News Dispatch) Austin Byrne, 39, buried his face in the dark coat of his three-month old puppy named Buddy. The pup nuzzled against Byrne’s salt-and-pepper beard as the two sat in an armchair of a brightly-lit lobby of a new supportive housing complex in Tooele where Byrne has been living since late last year.

He moved in when the development opened its doors in December — ending his time living in a homeless shelter ever since he got out of jail. Byrne was arrested in 2022 when he got into an altercation while he was living in Wendover. The arrest cost him his job as a security guard at one of the casinos near the western edge of the Utah-Nevada border. He also lost his apartment, his car. When he got out of jail, all he owned were the clothes on his back.

“I lost everything,” he said. “I had to start over.”

While living in a shelter on Vine Street — a temporary shelter in Tooele operated by the homeless provider Switchpoint while the permanent supportive housing complex where he lives now was being constructed — Byrne said he tried to save up to pay for his own housing by working in construction framing homes, but he didn’t make enough to afford rent, and definitely not enough for a home of his own.

Then, he said he began struggling with depression when his father died last year.

Byrne had dark circles under his eyes, which turned sad when he mentioned his dad. But when he looked down at the puppy leashed at his feet, his eyes softened.

“I’m doing a little bit better now,” Byrne said. “Now that I’ve got Buddy.”

Now, Byrne lives in one of the about 66 permanent supportive housing units at Harris Community Village. Many of the village’s residents have pets, Switchpoint staff said, something that’s allowed to help encourage a sense of community as well as provide companionship and responsibility to people struggling with loneliness or other difficulties. Along with Byrne, several other residents were walking their dogs in a fenced, grassy area that serves as a mini dog park.

“I really didn’t think about getting (a dog) until I came here and saw everybody else had one, seeing how happy they were,” Byrne said. “I was like, ‘Man, that looks like something I need.’ Otherwise, I was just hiding in my apartment.”

Byrne said caseworkers have been helping him manage his depression and turn his life around. For now, he said it’s taking it one day at a time, but he hopes to eventually get back on his feet.

“This place,” he said, “is a godsend.”

Harris Community Village

The apartment building near 251 N. 1st Street, owned by the Tooele County Housing Authority, sits next to a brick building that was once an elementary school.

Now, the school is a homeless shelter with 44 beds, including seven separate family rooms. In both facilities, Switchpoint provides resident support and case management services with an agreement with the housing authority.

Switchpoint Tooele
Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch

It’s been freshly renovated for its new role as a shelter, but its hallways — with walls that now feature rows of colorful flowers painted with the handprints of its new residents — still feel reminiscent of a school. As does its kitchen and cafeteria, which now serves some 500 meals a day (including about 300 for Meals on Wheels for people in need throughout the community).

Harris Community Village’s campus also features a 24/7 child care facility for families staying in the shelter and permanent supportive housing units, as well as community members living in the larger Tooele area.

It’s the first project of its kind in Utah — where a shelter, child care, case worker programs and supportive housing all share a campus. It’s also situated in a community not known for its homeless services (at least not yet).

Tooele is a small city located in what’s otherwise a mostly rural county of the same name, located some 35 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the vast majority of Utah’s homeless services are concentrated.

Even though Tooele is not usually frequented by Utah’s top elected officials, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox put it on the map when he held a ceremonial bill signing to celebrate a slate of homelessness and behavioral health bills passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year.

He held the news conference in a plaza between Harris Community Village’s supportive housing complex and the homeless shelter to showcase its ingenuity — and told reporters the idea (renovating old elementary schools and placing shelter and housing all in one place) is one that should be replicated by other cities and counties across the state as Utah continues to grapple with its growing homeless population.

“I think this is a wonderful model,” the governor said at the time, “and one we’ll be talking to more counties about.”

‘One miracle after another’

Harris Community Village only came to be because five years ago, one pastor — after multiple encounters with people experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go — began fretting that Tooele didn’t have many resources to help.

Rick Ehrheart, a now retired pastor from Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele, nicknamed “Pastor Rick,” told Utah News Dispatch it all started in 2019.

“Our little church here in Tooele. … we found someone living on our church patio, then someone had set up an encampment on our front yard, and probably the toughest one was one Saturday, another member and I were at the church doing some work and there was a young lady sleeping on the ground next to the church,” Ehrheart said. “We found out she had been thrown out of an abusive relationship. She had nowhere to go.”

“It just made it so apparent, the problem that Tooele had,” he added. “We had no place to refer to anybody who was homeless at the time. Literally no place.”

Switchpoint Tooele
The women’s dormitory at Switchpoint Tooele Community Resource Center in Tooele is pictured on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

So Ehrheart said he started to get involved and ask questions. That year he attended a faith leaders luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion and started talking to people working in the governor’s office. Long story short, he was eventually introduced to people leading Switchpoint, which began its operations in southern Utah, based in St. George.

“I made the mistake of calling (Switchpoint executive director) Carol Hollowell,” he joked, and that started a chain reaction of meetings and effort that eventually brought the Harris Community Village to fruition. “It was kind of like one miracle after another that made it happen.”

The Tooele County Housing Authority ended up acquiring the former Harris Elementary School from a drug treatment center provider, which in 2019 successfully rezoned the school to be a drug rehab center.

“They took a lot of heat when the rezoning went through,” Ehrheart said. “But they got it through, so when we bought it … it had already been rezoned so we didn’t have to go through that again.”

It’s usually no easy feat to establish new homeless shelters. In 2017, after Salt Lake city and county officials worked for more than two years to site three new homeless resource centers, neighbors were up in arms. But in Tooele, there wasn’t nearly as much outcry. Perhaps that’s because the small-town facility flew under the radar, plus it had already been rezoned.

Since its opening, Harris Community Village also seems to mesh seamlessly with its surrounding community. Ehrheart said perhaps Tooele residents have been able to more easily accept it since it also came with permanent supportive housing, and both are operated by a provider that has firm rules when it comes to drug use.

The $31 million project was made possible using funds from the state, Tooele County, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as other private donations, according to Switchpoint.

“If you can get permanent supportive housing along with the shelter, you’re doing a really good thing,” he said. “And I think that makes this such a special project.”