A series of unfortunate events: Homeless shelter site selection
Residents of Draper have a quick show of hands of who opposes the homeless shelter sites. (Kelly Cannon/City Journals)
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The events and decisions that led up to the selection of the various homeless shelter sites in Salt Lake County are filled with frustration, confusion and outright hostility. The issue of what to do with the growing homeless population in the county and where to put them has been met with several different solutions, none of which everyone seems to agree upon. However, the final decisions on where to put homeless resource centers were made and many neighborhoods and communities are about to change.
Announcement of New Homeless Resource Shelters
On Dec. 13, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the city council announced the locations of four 150-bed homeless shelters around the city that would also serve as resource centers. The locations were: 653 E. Simpson Ave. (2300 South), 275 W. High Ave. (1400 South), 131 E. 700 South, and 648 W. 100 South.
The selection was announced without any public comment and are the result of a two-year selection processes. The mayor and council said the decision was made without public input because they wanted to avoid pitting neighborhoods against each other. However, they promised to hold open houses to gain feedback from the community.
“A process that would pit different communities in our city against each other and tear our city apart as we try to affect change, was not something we felt comfortable doing,” Biskupski told residents at a Sugar House Community Council meeting.
The idea behind the four sites was to provide services such as mental health, substance abuse treatment and job training while drawing people away from The Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, which is scheduled to be closed. City officials said the smaller shelters would have a minimal impact on the neighborhoods with no drug dealing allowed near the sites and high levels of security.
However, not everybody was happy with the decisions.
Sugar House Rebuts
Instead of empathy, the decision was met with outrage, most vehemently in Sugar House where one site was set for 653 E. Simpson Ave.—across the street from a residential neighborhood that would replace four local businesses.
Residents poured into city council meetings, open houses and the Sugar House Community Council meeting to voice opposition to a decision made behind closed doors. City officials maintained they did so to avoid pitting neighborhoods against one another.
“The way the city’s handled this, it’s building nothing but resentment from most of the community,” said Chris Sveiven, who lives 75 feet away from the proposed site.
Biskupski pleaded with residents to embrace the resource model that would disperse the homeless population and “stop subjecting them to easy access by drug dealers.” She also urged compassion for “families that need to be embraced by us, that need a little bit of help.”
Residents, however, felt the model was too risky.
“You’re asking us to take a leap of faith,” resident Shane Stroud told Biskupski during the community council meeting. “This isn’t a leap of faith, this is a gamble and the costs of that gamble are extremely high.”
Stroud added if the center didn’t work as intended, repercussions would last decades.
Legislative Take Over
On Feb. 24, the four shelter plan was scrapped with two proposed sites dropped—including the Simpson site—and a plan was developed to build a third site somewhere in Salt Lake County.
Legislation was passed on March 9 that appropriated more than $10 million to help build the resource centers and removed local cities from having any formal say on the mater.
That legislation also required Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to recommend a site to the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee by March 30, or risk losing the money.
March 10 saw five homeless sites selected—three in West Valley City and two in South Salt Lake, with two additional South Salt Lake sites added on March 21.
What ensued was three weeks of what McAdams deemed would be a “robust but abbreviated” process to include public input with four open houses and one public comment session.
West Valley City and South Salt Lake Fight Against Site Selection
West Valley City officials repeatedly decried the sites selected, citing the stress it would place on fire and police departments, the unproven service model and overall rushed process.
“It’s complete vapor,” said WVC City Manager Wayne Pyle of the planned service model during an open house on March 18. He said these resources being talked about are “great ideas and we’d love to see them implemented” but doesn’t feel they are fully formed with no plans, funds or specifics.
“In our mind what we have is this shelter being moved from downtown to West Valley or wherever with a lot of good intention, but not anything in terms of an actual plan to prove that it’s gonna be any different than where it is right now,” Pyle said.
The county has studied homelessness reforms for over two years according to McAdams. Resource centers are designed to serve specific populations such as single women or single men.
Parts of the design also include sleeping areas, on-site case managers to help with specialized services such as job or behavioral needs, food services and security space for a police officer. All would be provided inside the center.
The plan would be different from The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande where occupants must leave to utilize surrounding services.
Shaleane Gee, director of special projects with Salt Lake County, told residents at an open house that the center would be like an “emergency room facility. A resource center in the sense that it teaches you how to leave homelessness.”
West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow said if the model’s different from past ventures, why wasn’t that sold to the public.
“We’re all reasonable people, and if it’s so great, why can’t you do it at Rio Grande right now? And prove to us that it works. We’ll line up asking for it, may even bid for it,” Bigelow said.
McAdams told media and residents on March 21 that the model is similar to Volunteers of America’s Youth Resource Center or the YWCA, both in Salt Lake City, that provides shelter and transitional housing for homeless women and children.
City officials continually stressed the burden WVC already carried with its 33,000 affordable housing units and Kelly Benson Apartment complex which provides permanent housing for chronically homeless.
“It’s unethical to ask our residents to carry even more. We happily carry our burden, but we can’t do it all,” said WVC councilman Lars Nordfelt at the March 18 open house.
On March 22, residents and representative from both South Salt Lake and West Valley City met with the members of the Homeless Coordinating Committee at the state capitol to argue their cities were not suited to handle the proposed homeless shelter sites.
McAdams began the meeting by trying to assure residents that they are listening to the public and understand their concerns.
“I know the news about this effort to find a location for the homeless resource center has been unsettling and stressful to homes and businesses in South Salt Lake and in West Valley City. I know there are concerns about drugs and crime and property values, loss of economic opportunity,” McAdams said. “I know this is not because of your lack of compassion for people who are met with the crisis that comes with not having a roof over your head or a safe place to sleep at night.”
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood addressed the committee, saying her city and its residents are compassionate and solution oriented but the homeless shelter site selection process has forced them to oppose the shelter in their community for several reasons. Wood said the site selection process has been too rushed, less than fair and less than transparent.
“What’s the point of public meetings and site evaluation committee if the sites have already been chosen behind closed doors?” she asked.
She also pointed out that as one of the smallest cities in the county, South Salt Lake is already overburdened with regional and county services residents are forced to support. This includes two county jails, two juvenile detention centers, an 88-bed facility for the chronically homeless, a regional sewage treatment plant and a solid waste transfer facility. Wood reminded the committee none of these services pay property tax toward the city.
Wood also opposed the resource center model because there is no guarantee it will work.
“We have no confidence that the new location will solve the problem. In fact, it feels like we are simply moving the problem south,” Wood said. “The resource center model is too new and there is no funding arrangement in the legislation to offset the community impacts.”
Many residents who spoke at the public hearing explained how neither South Salt Lake nor West Valley City would be a good fit for the homeless shelter sites. One South Salt Lake resident said that unlike other cities, this is not a case of “not in my backyard.” Rather, their yard is already full. Another South Salt Lake resident said the city is a great place for the county to put things they don’t want. Residents have been very accommodating but “enough was enough.”
Disaster in Draper
On March 28, two days before the committee was set to make a selection on the new sites, Draper Mayor Troy Walker shocked residents by announcing he was offering two potential sites for consideration within his city limits. One site would be a portion of the Utah State Prison location, which is scheduled to be moved to Salt Lake City. The other site was at 15001 Minuteman Drive.
Draper was the first city to willingly offer sites for a homeless shelter.
"It's the right thing to do, it's the Christian thing to do. It's the thing that will set us apart and make us the people we are," Walker said.
However, the Draper residents were having none of it. Nearly 1,000 residents showed up to an open house on March 29 at Draper Park Middle School. The meeting was supposed to be an open house-style meeting where residents could fill out cards with their comments and learn more about the sites.
When residents found out there was no public comment to be made, a handful hijacked the meeting, forcing the school to open the auditorium and provide a microphone.
The majority of residents who were opposed to the homeless shelter sites cited concerns over increased crime and drugs, putting strains on the police department and lowering property values.
Residents took turns airing their grievances, shouting at anyone in support of the site. This included Lawrence Horman, a homeless man who asked for compassion for people like him. He was booed off stage when he called for patience.
Another resident who explained she had worked with homeless teens in the past said she was mostly angry because she felt the decision was sprung upon residents but she was in favor of the sites in Draper. She was also booed and yelled at.
The meeting turned hostile when Walker and McAdams took the stage, with many residents screaming abuse at the public officials. Walker tried to explain his point of view but was met with only screams of derision.
Residents threatened Walker with impeachment and lawsuits, claiming corruption and deals made behind closed doors. Others called Walker out for the alleged mistreatment of Councilwoman Michele Weeks, who claimed to be left out of the announcement. Weeks told the crowd she had only found out about the sites during the press conference and she was just as shocked as residents.
“They have not included the Draper residents,” Weeks said. “We have a lot of questions that need to be answered before we volunteer two sites.”
The nearly four-hour meeting, which mostly consisted of Walker and McAdams sitting silently on the stage while residents spoke their minds, ended with Walker rescinding his offer of the two sites.
"You folks don't want it," Walker said, "so we can't in good conscience say we want it here."
On March 31, McAdams announced the decision to put the third homeless shelter in South Salt Lake at 3380 S. 1000 West. That day, Wood held a press conference to address residents about the decision. She said there are concerns about the site, including the fact it’s close to the Jordan River, a newly developed community on the west side of the river and longtime residents along 1000 West who have fought to keep the nearby agriculture zone intact.
“Needless to say, we are disappointed. We are frustrated and we are angry. Our neighbors and businesses have stood together, residents have come out and we have fought this fight together. I thank you for that,” Wood said. “As a community, I think we expressed our concerns well. I think we had a compelling reason as to why we were not the site for the homeless resource center. I’m not quite sure where the communication breakdown was or why it didn’t matter.”
Wood explained McAdams made commitments to South Salt Lake to help ease the blow. These commitments included significant investments in open space and transportation, improvements to the Jordan River and new amenities like a library.
Most importantly, McAdams told Wood that construction would not begin until legislation was passed next session that would provide some kind of continued funding source for the resource center.
“We feel that gives us some time and we’re going to take advantage of that time to address some critical issues to make sure the impact on our community is as small as it can be,” Wood said.
Wood also told residents she and the council are promising not to raise taxes.
“You are not subsidizing another undesirable regional use in our community,” Wood said. “That’s a commitment that we’re making right now.”
Wood called the selection a "lethal blow" to the community of South Salt Lake. "We are angry and we continue to be angry," Wood said.