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Difference makers: Two voices guiding the effort to help the homeless

SALT LAKE CITY — Two women — masters of listening, empathy and communication — have played integral roles in the Salt Lake region's daunting mission to end homelessness.

Their work is reflected by the progress of two panels convened by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, which have spent the past year studying homelessness issues and seeking solutions. More than 30 different groups — from businesses owners and residents to government officials and homeless advocates — have taken seats on each panel.

To mediate discussions within such a diverse group representing at times clashing interests, it's taken two "intelligent, thoughtful and focused" leaders to chart a roadmap toward harmony and realistic solutions, said panel member Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home.

Enter Michele Straube and Shaleane Gee.

These two facilitators, Straube, on Becker's Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission, and Gee, on McAdams' Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee are difference-makers in 2015, bringing the promise of progress in 2016.

"We still have a long way to go, but boy, we certainly can pause and be optimistic at this stage in the journey," Minkevitch said. "Remembering that this voyage is fraught with peril, and too many people are counting on us to stay on course, the kind of strength of character these two women have brought to the discussion has been invaluable."

Last month, the city and county panels came to unanimous consensus to recommend moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to helping the homeless to a plan to build two or three different shelters in scattered sites. In October, the groups presented an plan to align all 30 organizations on the same specific goals.

"We've been blessed with two people who have helped us work as a team," said Palmer Depaulis, former Salt Lake City mayor and co-chair of the city's commission. "The discussions they've mediated have been comfortable and people have got to know each other's perspectives better. The group has gelled, and it's remarkable, because at the beginning we had no idea where this was going to go."

Taming clashing interests

While McAdams, Depaulis and Minkevitch, among others, praise Straube and Gee for making the panels' progress possible, both facilitators are quick to waive away credit.

"It's not because of me," Straube said. "It's because of so many different people. The conversation has totally changed from some saying, 'We're never going to solve homelessness,' to recognizing that every individual in our community is valuable, and as a community we want to do the best we can for everyone."

"With all these interests coming together, the community conversation has moved to be that much more constructive," she said. "Everybody in the community now has an idea of how they can be helpful."

Gee, also, said it's thanks to the group members' eagerness to be part of a solution.

"The people on this committee are some of the smartest people I've ever met, all of them," she said. "They're also the most committed. They've been willing to put their individual agendas aside and sit at that table."

Yet, McAdams said in the beginning, there was a "natural tension" between residents and businesses that were frustrated with the impacts that homeless facilities were having on neighborhoods, and the shelter providers who knew they were serving a population that needed to be helped.

"That needed to be addressed," the mayor said. "(Gee) spent hundreds of hours touring facilities, building the relationships to help everyone realize that they could let their guard down. ... Through the process, she helped us understand it's not about one particular provider, but the way we've structured the system."

On top of mediating all of the panels' discussions throughout the year, Gee and Straube spent the majority of their time strategically planning the agenda and meeting individually with group members to address concerns.

Minkevitch said both Gee and Straube were able to "chart some clarity for very broad, complex issues," so each member, from service providers to developers and elected officials, could see the big picture and figure out how to change what Gee described as a "calcified system."

"When we ask if we can do something differently, people say, 'No because we can't change that policy or we can't change what developers want to do downtown,'" Gee said. "But at the table, we would just turn to the right and say, 'Hey, could we change that policy' or 'could we rethink that?' So we had all the right people to entertain any idea."

Minkevitch said there was "an art" to Straube and Gee's ability to know when to loosen the reigns on group discussions, and then to pull back when they realized the discussions were heading down a "rabbit hole."

Unearthing solutions

Depaulis said one of the first moments of consensus came when Straube asked each group member to describe what they hoped to accomplish through the commission, and one common interest drove the conversation: public safety.

"She was able to let everyone express how concerned they were about not only the safety of the people in the neighborhood, but also the shelter providers were worried about the safety of their workers, volunteers and clients," he said. "Through that conversation, she was able to really draw out the things everyone had in common."

Scott Howell, chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of residents, businesses, service providers and public officials with the goal to revitalize downtown, praised Straube and Gee's ability to put the issue into perspective.

"At first, we took a lot of arrows," Howell said. "Some were saying we were just big developers that wanted the property. But the reality was, we all just wanted what was best for our (homeless) brothers and sisters."

Straube said she views herself as a "conflict coach," by urging people to listen and be transparent about their interests, needs and concerns.

"I figure I can only (help) one individual at a time," she said. "Hopefully, by going through the process, they each can learn a new and different way of dealing with conflict, and that translates to other aspects of their lives."

Straube, who is also director of the Wallace Stegner Center's Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah, has spent the last 20 years facilitating collaborative problem-solving, and has worked with Becker throughout his administration.

Gee, director of special projects and partnerships in Salt Lake County, also has more than 20 years of experience directing complex projects, including work on projects centered around improving neighborhoods in Chicago.

"It's not just their hard work," Minkevitch said. "It's their smart work. It's their thoughtfulness. We've made it this far thanks to their efforts, and we're still on the road under their guidance."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1