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Reactions to homeless resource center sites run gamut of compassion to outrage

SALT LAKE CITY — Reactions ranged from outrage to compassion Tuesday after Salt Lake City officials announced the locations for four new homeless resource centers in the city.

Neighbors and residents of the Depot District decried the selection of a site at 648 W. 100 South, which is less than two blocks from existing homeless service providers on Rio Grande Street.

Lance Saunders, co-owner of Metro Music Hall at 615 W. 100 South, said he launched the live music venue in September, and he's worried how a new resource center across the street will impact the security of his business and safety of his patrons.

"It's going to be a nightmare here," Saunders said. "You've seen the tent city a few blocks away. It's going to be a situation exactly like that, only smaller."

Saunders said he hopes city officials' promises that the center won't create the same situation as The Road Home hold true, but there's no guarantee, and that makes him nervous.

"It's definitely a stick in my spokes, but I guess we'll just have to deal with it," he said. "I am worried."

Saunders said what's most frustrating is that he knew nothing about the city's plans until Tuesday's announcement that new homeless resource centers will be placed at four sites in the city. The other sites are 653 E. Simpson Ave., 275 W. High Ave. and 131 E. 700 South.

"No one gave us a say. They didn't have any input from the people that live in this area," he said. "They just said this is where we're going to put it, that's it. Deal with it."

Up the street from the Metro Music Hall, employees and managers of The Sun Trapp bar at 102 S. 600 West shared similar frustrations.

"I think it's B.S.," said Dennis Gwyther, a member of the bar's board of directors.

Gwyther said The Sun Trapp already endures problems with drugs and crime right outside its front doors from the homeless population overflowing from Rio Grande Street.

"It's already out of control," he said, worried that the problem will still be concentrated to the Depot District. "It's not going to fix anything. All you're doing is taking it from the east side of Gateway to the west side of Gateway."

"It'll just make it worse," said bartender Michelle Sexton.

"What are they going to do about the rest of them? I know there are four shelters, but do the math on that. That's only for 600 people."​

Jeffrey Williams, who lives near 275 W. High Ave., said he found out he'll be living near one of the new homeless resource centers when he saw it on the news Tuesday afternoon.

Williams worries the center will have a negative impact on his home's property values and "aggravate" problems his neighborhood already experiences with drug dealing and prostitution.

"I don't understand," he said. "It's a shock for me."

Williams, too, is frustrated that he hadn't heard about plans to locate the center in his neighborhood until after the decision was made.

"We weren't informed at all about anything. It was all kept secret the whole time," he said. "How can a city who says it wants to be transparent do things behind our back? We live here. We have to live around these shelters.

For months, Rio Grande Cafe owner Pete Henderson has been reluctant to renew his restaurant's next five-year lease, due to expire in March.

Infuriated by the conditions surrounding his cafe — with business plummeting 50 percent over the past five years — Henderson said he couldn't continue his business without knowing there would be a light at the end of the tunnel.

After his son, Ian, was assaulted in October outside the restaurant, Henderson said he wouldn't sign the lease until he knew if and when The Road Home would be closing. That answer came Monday.

"It is very likely I will continue operating here," he said, smiling. "It's not over yet. This is going to take some time, but there's hope."

However, Henderson said he was "somewhat concerned" about the homeless resource center planned for 648 W. 100 South because of its proximity to Rio Grande Street. The cafe owner said he sympathizes with the business owners who fear for the future, but also he noted that anything is better than what downtown is currently experiencing. ​

​"If I had a choice, I would have no shelters of any kind anywhere near my business or home," he said. "And yet I would much rather have a shelter of 150 than a shelter for 1,000-plus."

Henderson said it's about time the burden is lifted from Rio Grande Street and distributed to other areas of the city.

"No neighborhood should have to carry it all," he said. "It's time."

Jenny Cushing, vice president of leasing for Vestar, owner of The Gateway, described Tuesday's announcement as a "win‐win‐win for the city, for those who are experiencing homelessness, and The Gateway. This will help dramatically in the long term for everyone and serve all communities well."

Vestar was unaware of the location for the new shelters, including one in the Depot District, but Cushing said the company "welcome(s) the smaller shelter site more than three blocks west. The newer facilities are well-vetted through the mayor’s office, (redevelopment agency) and Salt Lake City police to be safer and better serve the homeless community.”

At a big-box building at 131 E. 700 South, which now operates as a Deseret Industries facility, neighbors and customers said placing a new homeless resource center there makes sense given its proximity to the Department of Workforce Services; Project Reality, a provider of substance abuse treatment and prevention services; as well as a clinic that serves people on Medicaid.

Pam Bird, a Salt Lake area resident, said splitting the subpopulations of people experiencing homelessness among four facilities is also a good idea.

"I feel it could be any of us. There was a time when I lost my job and my mom let me stay with her or I would have been homeless. I was 61 when I lost my job and it was really scary. It can happen to anybody. We need to be more understanding and giving to people," Bird said.

Chris Payne, who works for neighboring Sacred Circle Health Care, a clinic owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute that primarily serves Medicaid patients, said the clinic could be a boon to the future resource center.

"It would be an advantage. They'd be able to access the clinic and have a place to have health care," Payne said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, owner of the building, offered Salt Lake City the option to purchase the property within three years, said church spokesman Doug Andersen.

"The church is an active partner in helping to care for those with the greatest needs in our community. Homelessness is one such need. We applaud the efforts of city and community leaders who are working to address this in a manner that is responsive to the competing needs of our diverse population," he said.

Andersen said the LDS Church will look for another location for the Deseret Industries store on the site. The facility is used as a job-training site, primarily for refugees.

Michael Iverson, chairman of the Central City Neighborhood Council's executive board, said the neighborhood greets the challenge of a homeless resource center "with optimism. We expect a greater degree of transparency and cooperation from the city and county moving forward."

"These new resource centers represent an opportunity to weave back into our community those who are most in need, but that can only be accomplished through a robust partnership between service providers, neighborhood residents, and local business owners," Iverson said.

In Sugar House, homeowner Chris Svieven, who moved to Utah from Washington, D.C., two years ago, expressed dismay about the announcement because there was no public process about specific sites.

"It's kind of shocking to me that they're going to put that a block from my house and I didn't even get (to comment or ask questions) … because this is a nice family neighborhood. I'm very nervous that the one downtown is going to be a block from my house because that looks awful. There are people sleeping on the streets. It's crazy down there," he said.

Meanwhile, homeless services providers were taking a "wait-and-see" approach, with some expressing concern about the eventual closure of The Road Home's community shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St.

The Road Home's shelters served a record 1,409 people one night recently, and head counts have been hovering around 1,300. Combined, the four new resource centers will serve 600, but officials say the need for emergency shelter will be reduced by the development of supportive housing and more affordable housing.

“Yesterday’s announcement of the eventual closure of The Road Home on Rio Grande Street leaves us concerned for the 600-plus homeless folks for whom there will not be room in the four new resource centers and concern for the many who are present in the general downtown area who have not and will not be staying in the shelters," said Dennis Kelsch, Catholic Community Services of Utah's director of homeless services.

"Our goal is to do whatever is necessary to ensure that those experiencing homelessness’ needs are met and that the most vulnerable in our community are treated with dignity and respect."

The Road Home, meanwhile, said in a statement that it remains "committed to providing emergency shelter in the best possible locations in the city and county. We will continue to work alongside Salt Lake City and our other community partners to meet the demand for shelter and speed up the pathway to housing."

Salt Lake City will always need a crisis response system, and that system will be focused on ending homelessness as quickly as possible, The Road Home statement said.

"New resource centers will be central to that effort. With a significant investment in a variety of affordable and supportive housing, and the creation of a pathway to access that housing, together we can change our service delivery in Salt Lake," the statement said.

Rob Wesemann, division director of homeless services for Volunteers of America-Utah, which earlier this year opened a new resource center for youths experiencing homelessness, said the potential of the new resource centers is exciting.

"Volunteers of America is seeing positive results from just the first six months of the VOA Youth Resource Center being open, so we are excited to see these types of services available to other vulnerable audiences as well," Wesemann said.

Still, The Road Home "has been such a core program in serving individuals experiencing homelessness in Utah that it is hard to imagine this location eventually being closed," he said.

Fourth Street Clinic has been exploring a number of options to dovetail with new plans for resource centers.

One alternative is a mobile clinic that would visit each center on a rotating basis. Another is establishing a second homeless health care center in Salt Lake City.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, in a statement released after the announcement of the sites, one of which is in his legislative district, expressed gratitude for a community willing to step up to help its neediest residents.

“I am grateful that the governor and (Utah House) Speaker (Greg) Hughes have voiced their commitment, and look forward to working with them and other members of the Legislature to provide the funding to make the necessary resources available. We must also listen to the citizens of Salt Lake City as we work to make sure there is a smooth transition to these new shelters," he said.

Briscoe noted that homelessness in not unique to Salt Lake City.

"Although the city has taken responsibility for these programs, legislators and other city leaders in the state should recognize and fund the programs that need support to prevent homelessness in all areas of Utah. We need to focus on the whole issue, ensuring affordable housing, getting people in homes, providing assistance to keep people from evictions and foreclosures, and reducing barriers to employment. People in our state are struggling, and we are working to end that," Briscoe said.

Contributing: Andrew Adams, Nicole Vowell