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S.L. County mayor's night in shelter fueled Draper mayor's compassion, then controversy

DRAPER — Mayor Troy Walker's controversial offer of a shelter site earlier this year was bolstered by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' stay in the Salt Lake Valley's homeless epicenter, the Draper mayor confirmed Monday.

But rather than the same profound compassion and willingness to act that Walker says enveloped him as McAdams had recounted his experience, furious Draper residents answered their mayor's proposal to build a resource center for the homeless with outrage, insults and accusations of political impropriety.

And all the while, with McAdams dejected at his side, Walker thought of the tale the county mayor had told him, an account that at the time was still private.

"It was an extremely upsetting experience to live through. But it was worse for me knowing what Ben had done," Walker said Monday of a now-infamous town hall meeting in his city. "It was really difficult to sit there through that whole ordeal. I knew what Ben knew. I knew that Ben had seen that suffering firsthand and straight up. It made it harder."

McAdams' account of the eye-opening weekend among Salt Lake's volatile homeless population earlier this year — an effort to better understand the situation as he faced a tight deadline to select a site for a homeless resource center in the county — had been shared with only a handful of people until Sunday.

McAdams recounted his experience with one reporter each from two Salt Lake newspapers, the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune, describing three days and two nights on the streets and in the Road Home shelter where he witnessed the dark depths of addiction and human suffering.

McAdams' interview about his time among the homeless was widely read within hours of being published. The story continues to spread online, and McAdams said he's received dozens of emails and hundreds of social media interactions from across Utah and around the world, with a wide majority in support of the county mayor.

"I think the outpouring of support has been a morale boost for me and my team," he said. "We really appreciate it."

Moving forward, the Salt Lake County mayor emphasized that action must be taken quickly to respond to the growing problem.

"As a state and as a community we've looked the other way far too long," he said. "We've got to take action now to address the public safety crisis and the humanitarian crisis that has been happening in our capital city."

Troubled by news coverage of deteriorating conditions downtown earlier this year, Walker was trying to reach McAdams to offer sites for the homeless center on the same weekend the county mayor set out on a "fact-finding mission" among the homeless.

When Walker finally reached him, McAdams set up a meeting for that Sunday, the morning after the county mayor's night in the shelter.

As they talked in the county office building, with McAdams still dressed from the night before, Walker said he broke down in tears listening to the story.

"It was probably one of the most moving experiences I have had," Walker recalled, emotion in his voice. "It brought tears to my eyes to sit there and listen to him about the absolute human suffering he witnessed. … It broke us down."

Walker was the only mayor to volunteer to accept one of the resource centers, meant to disperse and better serve the homeless populations currently served by the aging Road Home. Particularly moved by McAdams' accounts of the danger and uncertainty that women and children face in the Rio Grande area, Walker wondered if the Draper center could focus on that segment of the homeless population.

The offer was announced two days later and was met by instant and furious reactions. A heated town hall meeting followed, lasting more than three hours and including a moment where a homeless man trying to thank the mayors was booed off the stage. Many called for Walker to be impeached or resign.

The meeting ultimately ended in cheers when Walker rescinded his offer, announcing, defeated, "I really thought I would have some support, but I get it now."

Looking back, Walker says offering to give the shelter a home in his city was "a bad political move."

But that's not why he did it.

"I was trying to lead and do something that was right," Walker said. "I just wanted to set the tone of the community. I thought … if a mayor and some council members can set the tone that we're not afraid to find some help and be part of the solution, that would have gone a long way. That's what I hoped."

Now, Walker is up for re-election, and criticism over the homeless shelter has dogged his campaign.

McAdams declined to comment on the heated town hall, but he praised Walker on Monday for his willingness to help.

"I was heartened and inspired at the leadership of Troy Walker, who not only offered moral support but offered to help to be part of the solution," the county mayor said. "I thought that was true leadership and took a lot of courage."

In the days and weeks following the meeting, several people who had jeered him at the roiling town hall have reached out to apologize, Walker said. And now that McAdams' story is public, the Draper mayor hopes residents in his city will read it.

"You think of that lawless culture that is there, but homeless are people who lose a job, living on the edge, or get sick," Walker said. "Those are a lot of those people, and I hope (residents) will think about that."

Walker also said he feels a newfound encouragement that solutions to serve those in need and weed out the criminal element preying the Rio Grande area as lawmakers — including Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski — meet jointly with service providers on the issue.

"That's the Utah way," the Draper mayor said. "I think it's probably time we attack it as a greater community, because it affects all of us. We may not have a shelter in every city, but we're still part of that community."