SALT LAKE CITY — Preceded by more than four years of work and at times fierce controversy, officials on Monday broke ground on one of three planned homeless resource centers meant to replace the downtown homeless shelter when it's slated to close next summer.
"It has been a long road and certainly not always an easy one," said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. "But today we gathered together to begin the construction of a new homeless resource center, a space of hope for women in our community."
City, county and state leaders and other stakeholders were all smiles as they lined up behind gold-painted shovels to churn the first layer of soil for the facility at 131 E. 700 South, where an old Deseret Industries building once stood. The building was razed after the land was donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The new 200-bed, 60,000-square-foot facility will be named the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, after the mother of Pat King, who donated $4 million to help build the shelter.
"Most of the women that come here will have had significant adversity," King said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "My mom had adversity."
King said his mother raised seven children "alone and with no support," but she found a way to not only become "self-sufficient" after 30 years of struggle, but also be charitable when she could.
"My mom's legacy is self-sufficiency and giving back," he said. "Ultimately the greatest thing that could happen is the legacy of this building, the women's resource center will (also) be self-sufficiency and giving back."
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox credited the Utah Legislature for providing $20 million for the centers' construction, as well as an additional $13 million in recent years for homelessness programs, as well as $5 million to offset the cost of public safety around the shelters.
When the women's center opens in a year — with a state-mandated deadline of June 30, 2019, so the troubled downtown shelter can shutter on time — Cox said state, city and county leaders all going to "pat each other on the back" at the shelter's ribbon-cutting, in front of a facility that's going to be "incredible," with "first-class architecture."
"But I'm here to tell you none of that matters at all," Cox said. "What matters is going to be the people walking through that door. What matters is the women coming from domestic violence, who are struggling with addiction, who have lost their families, who have lost all hope and this is their last chance. That's what this is all about — it's about them."
Cox said he's "excited" to see women coming through the door, but he's "much more excited about the day it will be empty" because "we've invested in keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place."
The facility is estimated to cost about $14 million, according to Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that is building the shelters.
The next homeless resource center slated for groundbreaking is the 200-bed mixed-gender facility at 275 Paramount Ave. Cochrane said that groundbreaking ceremony should be within the next few weeks, by June.
Meanwhile, the date for the groundbreaking of the third shelter, a 300-bed men's facility in South Salt Lake, remains murky — and some fear it may miss its deadline, throwing into question whether the downtown shelter will actually be able to close by next summer.
Last week, city and state leaders held a tense meeting over how the shelter's conditional use permit had been bogged down because of technical issues with the property's boundaries.
But Cochrane, when asked about the issue Monday, said "we're making progress," noting that "the wheels are going a little faster," and has upcoming meetings planned with South Salt Lake officials.
Either way, officials are moving forward.
"This has been a long time coming," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said, calling Monday's groundbreaking "a big step forward to minimize homelessness."
He said the homeless resource centers will "launch a new model for our community, to both help those in need and ensure a safe and welcoming neighborhood for everyone."
McAdams said the shelter will mean a "roof and four walls, a warm, dry place to sleep and eat" that's staffed by "caring individuals" — but also "it will be much more than that."
"Women may be at a low point in their lives when they come in," McAdams said. "But through this new shelter model and program-rich environment, they will find a way up and a way out of their challenges and out of homelessness."