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Salt Lake leaders site temporary homeless shelter in Sugar House

‘Have empathy’: City leaders urge residents to embrace shelter in time of need

The site of a new emergency homeless shelter at 2234 S. Highland Drive in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
The site of a new emergency homeless shelter at 2234 S. Highland Drive in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City leaders on Thursday announced a new temporary, emergency overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness — and it’s in a neighborhood that once vehemently protested hosting a homeless center.

The new emergency shelter will be set up in the old Deseret Industries building in Sugar House, 2234 S. Highland Drive, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and members of the Salt Lake City Council announced in a press conference on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building late Thursday.

“Today, on day 11 of my administration, I am proud to announce that we have a plan,” Mendenhall said, “Within the next week, we will be expanding the number of beds available for our unsheltered neighbors.”

The building, most recently leased by the bike shop Bicycle Center and currently owned by the city’s Redevelopment Agency, will open its doors to up to 145 people. No specific date has been set for the building to open its doors to the homeless, but the mayor said they will begin moving in within the week.

“While we know that we’re yet again asking Salt Lake City and, in particular, residents and businesses in Sugar House to take on this critical humanitarian effort,” Mendenhall said, “I am confident that our community will do this with compassion and with understanding.”

The last time city leaders sited a homeless center in Sugar House, an army of neighbors turned out to protest the decision. In 2017, more than 150 residents overflowed from the City Council chambers, saying they felt “blindsided,” “betrayed,” “terrified” and “demoralized” by city leaders’ decision.

Amid that public outcry, leaders scrapped the site at 634 E. Simpson Ave and one other site, changing course from building four 150-bed homeless center to three larger facilities, two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake.

To Mendenhall, it’s a “very different situation” this time in Sugar House because the facility will only be “temporary.”

The shelter, named the Sugar House Temporary Shelter, will only be operational through this winter and will close by April 15, Mendenhall said.

In order to allow the commercial building to be used as a place for people to sleep overnight, the Salt Lake City Council will be holding a special meeting Thursday at 4:30 p.m. to consider an ordinance to enact “temporary zoning regulations” for a homeless shelter at the building’s location.

City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who represents the Sugar House area, said she hopes none of her constituents “feel blindsided” by Thursday’s announcement. She noted she sent out an email to her constituents asking “What would you do for our unsheltered?”

“Every single response that I got back was, ‘Isn’t there an old building somewhere that we can use? Can’t churches open their doors?’” Fowler said. “And so as we started to look at this we thought, well, we actually do have an old building that we can use.”

Fowler hopes Sugar House neighbors will embrace the temporary shelter, saying she’s open to answering concerns and questions.

“This team has worked really, really hard on thinking through all of these things in a way we can really help and protect our unsheltered communities,” she said. “As much as it might feel like another Simpson Ave. type of idea, I really hope it’s not. This is temporary. It’s an emergency overflow center. It’s not going to be utilized until all of the other beds are occupied.”

Fowler issued a call to residents to be a part of the solution and to perhaps volunteer at the center, which is in need of volunteers.

“Sit with them,” Fowler said. “Break bread with them. Have empathy.”

‘The building is a disaster’

Phil Blomquist, owner of Bicycle Center who leased the building for roughly two years prior to moving to a new location, told the Deseret News in an interview Thursday he learned the city would be using the building for a homeless shelter when he recently talked to a contractor working on improvements there.

Blomquist questioned whether the building would be suitable for up to 145 overnight sleepers, noting it contained mold, a roof that needs replacement, electrical and heating issues and more.

“The building is a disaster,” he said. “It should have been pushed over 20 years ago. It’s awful.”

Blomquist also worried about the impact of a homeless shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood.

“It’s going to be devastating to the retailers there,” he said.

The site of a new emergency homeless shelter at 2234 S. Highland Drive in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
The site of a new emergency homeless shelter at 2234 S. Highland Drive in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

But Mendenhall said the building will be livable, saying renovations are now underway.

“That’s what we’re addressing as we speak,” she said.

The American Red Cross will be providing cots for the new shelter, the mayor said. The City’s Redevelopment Agency is also spending about $5,000 to bring the building up to livable standards, she said.

What happens after this winter?

It’s not clear what the long-term solution is for homeless shelter overflow when the homeless centers reach capacity. Between now and the temporary shelter’s closure slated for April, Mendenhall said city, county and state leaders will work together to “plan for the growing needs of permanent supportive housing and supportive solutions for our unsheltered population.”

Mendenhall told reporters the Utah Legislature also needs to fund affordable housing and permanent supportive housing during the upcoming session.

“It may not be enough for the needs of the next winter,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t ever want to have this happen again in Salt Lake City. We’ve got to be able to have permanent supportive housing, case management, detox and access to all of those services so we don’t have to be working in the middle of January to come up with a solution again.”

Mendenhall said every day the homeless resource centers have been operating at about 96% capacity, and in recent days the Weigand Center exceeded its fire code capacity of about 88 people. With peak demand for shelter expected between January and February, Mendenhall said the additional shelter was needed to ensure “no one would be turned away from a warm bed during the winter months.”

“I didn’t want us to wait until someone was found deceased who had actively sought shelter and been denied that shelter,” Mendenhall said, “and I’m grateful that goal was shared by all of the partners who have come together to make this possible.”

The Weigand Center will continue to function as a day center and “central hub” for homeless services but will no longer serve as an overnight warming center, Mendenhall said. Next door, the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall will continue to provide overflow shelter downtown as well as daily meals. Transportation will be provided to transport clients to and from the overflow shelters, Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall credited city, county and state leaders for working together on the temporary shelter, saying the new homeless resource centers are “working.”

“But our ability to truly serve the unsheltered population relies on our ability to be agile and to work dynamically to serve emerging issues,” Mendenhall said. “We commend all of our partners on coming together and doing just that.

Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services, applauded city and county leaders for working together to find a local solution, noting they and state leaders have been “certainly sensitive” to concerns and have been open to solutions to pull the trigger on additional shelter when it was necessary.

He noted the state will be shifting state funding from the Weigand Center to help support the new temporary shelter.

“We want people to engage in services; this has been our goal the whole time,” Hardy said. “We set up the warming center for that very purpose. We weren’t quite hitting the mark with some populations, so this is another opportunity to help people get connected to services.”

An answer to protests

City leaders’ announcement comes after recent protests over the late-November closure of the Road Home’s downtown homeless shelter, meant to cap off Utah’s shift to a new homeless services delivery system with three new resource centers in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.

Some nights, some of those centers have reached capacity, but providers also report difficulty coordinating to fill all the beds on other nights. Some people experiencing homelessness have also refused to leave the downtown area, though they are given an option to sleep on overflow mats at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, or wait in a chair at the Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center for services.

Concerns of the capacity of the new centers and whether their combined 700 beds would be enough to replace the downtown shelter have long lingered, but recently hit a boiling point as protesters demonstrating on Washington Square clashed with police the day before Mendenhall’s inauguration ceremony.

As Mendenhall began her administration this month, she pledged to take swift action on homelessness concerns.

Mendenhall long ago, as a councilwoman, expressed the same concerns about the Road Home closing that the protesters are now demonstrating. But since the decision to close the downtown shelter was made at the state level, Mendenhall told the Deseret News the days heading into her entering office she aimed to explore more “emergency overflow opportunities” with city, county and state partners.

Specifically, Mendenhall said she was seeking other ways to address shelter overflow, other than referring clients to wait in chairs in the warming center rather than being given a mat to sleep on.

“Because I don’t doubt in the next two months as blizzards come through ... that we will be short on beds in the homeless resource centers and people would be turned away,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News at the time. “I don’t believe that sitting up in a chair sleeping at the Weigand Center is the best humane option that we’re offering. We need to actually provide opportunities for people to lay down and sleep.”

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center who has been outspoken about concerns homeless clients being told to wait in chairs overnight at the warming center, said he was “delighted” with Thursday’s announcement, noting Mendenhall has “been saying we need more shelter beds for two years.”

“The people who were sleeping indoors and the old shelter now have a place to go and not sit in a chair,” Tibbitts said. “Every person I’ve talked to who tried to sleep in a chair looks exhausted and kind of scared. So this is huge.”

Two protesters who participated in the Washington Square demonstration and clashed with police showed up with cell phone cameras to Thursday’s press conference. They questioned Mendenhall about “what’s going to happen” to protesters who were arrested and if she’d condemn law enforcement “stealing” people’s property during public cleanups of homeless camps, which are noticed 24-hours in advance.

Mendenhall said she hasn’t been briefed about the status of the people who engaged in the protest and that she didn’t agree with the characterization police are “stealing” property when they conduct those cleanups before her staff moved her away from the protesters.