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Homelessness commission starts to home in on new shelter locations

SALT LAKE CITY — Recommended sites for two new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City could be before the City Council by Nov. 1, according to a timeline of city's Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission unveiled Tuesday.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the commission's work has reached its most critical point — selecting five potential sites that will be winnowed to two when it delivers its final recommendations to the Salt Lake City Council.

"Our goal throughout this process has been to create safe spaces, places of dignity for those in need in our city," Biskupski said.

The time has come for the city to find locations for "two sustainable, safe and community sensitive homeless resource centers," she said.

While the city's process and Salt Lake County's Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee have envisioned two homeless resource centers of 250 beds each, the City Council has expressed a willingness to explore facilities of other sizes.

"We don’t know exactly what the right size is," Councilman Andrew Johnston said. "I don’t have the exact answer right now, but I know it’s part of the discussion."

David Litvack, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, said the timeline calls for selecting five possible locations by the end of August and asking the council for funding to "put down options" on the sites to preserve them for further consideration.

As the commission has an eye on the future of emergency shelters/resource centers, commission members and members of the public alike expressed frustration with ongoing drug use, crime and clutter.

“Every issue being brought up today is being addressed,” Biskupski said, noting specific initiatives to address drug addiction.

Litvack noted recent city efforts to increase the number of city-funded personal storage bins for people experiencing homelessness from 320 to 460, more frequent foot patrols by the Salt Lake City Police Department, and paying for additional services from the Clean Team, which picks up refuse and performs minor maintenance projects in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

The city is also utilizing and increased number of portable toilet on wheels, "which we're tracking the use of. They're being used quite often," Litvack said.

The city has also fenced the two Portland Loos along 500 West near the Road Home because they were being controlled by drug dealers, Litvack said. An attendant also has been stationed nearby "to make sure the Portland Loos are being used as intended," he said.

Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said experience has taught him that fewer people will congregate in the area once winter comes because the needy utilize shelter and people who are not homeless but hang out in the neighborhood go elsewhere.

Brown also predicted that once the city opens smaller homeless resource centers as opposed to one large-scale shelter "crime will exponentially drop."

Elizabeth Buehler, the city's civic engagement manager, said public meetings and the city's efforts to collect feedback online have identified three major factors for policymakers to consider as they select sites for the new resource centers. They are: safety for people seeking services and the neighborhoods where they are placed; ease of access to services; and access to affordable public transportation.

The city is committed to an inclusive and transparent process as the commission and ultimately the City Council determine locations for future homeless resource centers, Buehler said.

Litvak said the site selection process will also need to take into consideration state and federal requirements, such as avoiding sites on seismic fault lines and establishing shelters for a population that includes convicted sex offenders to shelter them an appropriate distance from schools and parks.

Gail Miller, co-chairwoman of the homeless services site evaluation commission, acknowledged the frustrations expressed by people attending Tuesday's meeting.

All aspects of the homelessness issue are important, she said, noting the progress of the commission and the city.

"We … can’t tackle it all in this commission," Miller said. "We have to keep our focus on what we’re here to do."