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‘My car is my lifeline’: Homeless have nowhere to park after South Salt Lake prohibits on-site parking near men’s center

SHARE ‘My car is my lifeline’: Homeless have nowhere to park after South Salt Lake prohibits on-site parking near men’s center
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Richard McDonald poses for a photo next to his car, which he’s resorted to parking in a nearby neighborhood after “No Parking” signs went up on the street outside the men’s resource center in South Salt Lake, on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — As traffic roared back and forth in front of him, Richard McDonald waited for a big enough gap before he jogged across busy 3300 South — a crossing he takes daily to get to the car he parks nearly a half mile away.

“It’s ridiculous,” McDonald told the Deseret News during the roughly 10-minute walk to his car Friday.

McDonald, a Navy veteran who said he’s been homeless for the past two to three years as he’s struggled to find work, has been sleeping at the South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center ever since it opened late last month, marking a major shift for Salt Lake County’s new homeless system.

It’s a step up from the Road Home’s downtown shelter, which McDonald said he avoided, at times choosing instead to sleep in his Nissan. Now he’s staying at the brand-new center — and it was working well for him until about two weeks after he moved in.

“Then, all of a sudden, they (put up) all these signs,” McDonald said.

The “no parking” signs — installed by the city of South Salt Lake around the beginning of December — now line the street, posted on every lamp post, restricting parking on both sides of 1000 West all the way up and down the dead-end road.

Aside from gated employees-only parking, there’s a tiny public parking lot in front of the center with only one public space and one handicapped parking spot.

McDonald — nervous about getting a parking ticket, or worse, having his car towed — said he suddenly had no clue where to park. When he said he asked staff at the center, they didn’t have answers for him.

“My first impression was, ‘I’m going to lose my car,’” McDonald said. “My car is my lifeline. Without my car, I’m not mobile. That’s the only thing I have going for me right now. It’s the only thing I own.”

So since then, McDonald said he’s resorted to parking on a residential street behind an apartment complex about a block away. He’s still fearful, though, that he’ll get cited or towed for parking there night after night.

McDonald, who said he uses his car daily to try to find work or to find an apartment that will accept his Section 8 voucher, sees the “no parking” signs as an unnecessary rule making life harder than it needs to be for the homeless.

“The city’s working against me,” he said.

‘We said no parking’

South Salt Lake leaders, when their city was being considered for a third homeless resource center meant to replace the downtown Salt Lake City shelter, fought vehemently against hosting the facility.

Faced with no legal options to contest former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams’ decision, South Salt Lake leaders later worked with the owners of the homeless centers, Shelter the Homeless, on the design and conditional uses of the facility, intent on mitigating as many impacts as they could on the surrounding area.

The 300-bed South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center faced multiple delays as the city, state and Shelter the Homeless ironed out permit details, at times clashing over what rules should be put in place to ensure the center, also run by the Road Home, won’t turn out like the once crime- and drug-riddled downtown shelter.

Parking, said South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood, was part of those discussions early on.

“This isn’t anything new,” Wood told the Deseret News in a recent interview. “They’ve known all along this was happening.”

In design negotiations with Shelter the Homeless, Wood said city officials were “pressured to not require a normal-sized city street that would accommodate parking” and that’s why the city has restricted parking on both sides of the street to meet city standards to ensure adequate access for emergency vehicles and fire trucks.

“They always knew that,” Wood said. “Had they installed a larger road, then we could have accommodated parking.”

City Engineer Dennis Pay said city officials originally proposed a 49-foot width for the road, similar to 900 West one street away, which services facilities including the Salt Lake County Jail and the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center. Instead, after being pressured to reduce the size of the street due to cost, Pay said city officials narrowed the road to about 36 feet — a width he said doesn’t leave enough room for on-street parking and for emergency vehicles to maneuver past vehicles adequately.

“That was a compromise that was made,” he said. “We said no parking.”

The mayor said city officials did raise concerns about the facility not having enough public parking, but designers told them there would be enough.

“We were told they had plenty of parking and that their clients come on foot, that they don’t have cars,” Wood said.

Delayed enforcement

Though McDonald said some cars had been towed from the street when the signs were first posted, South Salt Lake Police Chief Jack Carruth said that according to his records, police had not cited or impounded any cars on the street — yet.

“If there are cars being impounded there, it is not by the South Salt Lake Police Department,” Carruth said.

The aim of the delayed enforcement, Carruth said, is to allow the Road Home and its clients a “grace period” to get used to the new parking rules, especially as they finish their transition from the downtown shelter.

“As they get situated, we’re not enforcing that right off the bat, but eventually we will,” Pay said, adding that he’s not yet sure when he’ll tell his officers to start citing vehicles.

The purpose of the rules isn’t to “target the homeless,” the chief said, but to address access and safety concerns, as well as “loitering” on the street or drug trafficking.

“Being homeless is not a crime, and we’re not trying to address it as such,” the chief said. “But we are trying, with the conditional use permit, to put barriers in place to not allow what was happening in the Rio Grande.”

“We’re not there to harass any homeless individuals,” Carruth added. “We’re there to ensure the men’s resource center is a safe place to go.”

Shelter the Homeless did not respond to a request for comment. In response to an interview request with the Road Home’s executive director Michelle Flynn, the Road Home issued a statement.

“The Road Home is diligently working with the city of South Salt Lake as well as its many partners to ensure all guests can easily access the new men’s resource center,” the statement said. “This includes working to ensure parking for everyone who needs a warm place to stay.”

But as of Friday, McDonald didn’t know what he was going to do, other than continue to park nearly half a mile away and cross his fingers he won’t get cited or towed.

“They’ve got to take those signs down. It’s ridiculous,” he said, scoffing at the claim the road isn’t wide enough for emergency vehicles.

“Please,” he said. “Not wide enough? That’s unbelievable.”

As of Friday, it was unclear what solutions were in the works, but Carruth noted Salt Lake County still owns several lots surrounding the center. (The county bought up several homes after neighbors fearful of the facility’s impacts sought to take the money and move away). Conversations are taking place to perhaps convert one of those properties into a parking lot.

Carruth credited Road Home officials for being “very positive” to work with.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll come to a solution and come to the right decision of how to deal with this,” the chief said.