SALT LAKE CITY — The day after Salt Lake City leaders unveiled their selection of a city-owned building in Sugar House for a winter homeless shelter, the Salt Lake City Council legally cleared the way for its opening.
The Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously in a special meeting Friday to approve an ordinance authorizing temporary zoning regulations to allow the commercial building to be used as a homeless shelter for up to six months, but with the intent for it to shutter sooner.
The pledge of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and City Council members is the shelter at 2234 S. Highland Drive will only be open during this year’s winter and will shut down by April 15. In the meantime, city leaders say they will work with state and county leaders to come up with a different plan for next winter.
“This is not going to solve homelessness,” said City Councilman Andrew Johnston, who is also vice president of program operations for Volunteers of America, Utah, which operates one of the new homeless resource centers.
“This is just an emergency shelter for the winter months, literally a place to go to sleep each night. We still have to talk a lot about services, we still have to talk a lot about housing. ... We still have to talk a lot about what happens in April next year,” Johnston said. “Any good idea, any idea, we’ve got to look at it. Because this is going to take all of our efforts to do better next year and going forward.”
The building, the site of an old Deseret Industries store and most recently leased by the bike shop Bicycle Center, will have capacity for up to 145 people.
Friday’s vote means homeless clients can begin moving in within the week, as soon as the building is brought up to livable standards. The city’s Redevelopment Agency is spending roughly $5,000 to address heating and electrical issues, with work now underway.
As the council voted, about several dozen people quietly watched from the audience. The vote came with a 24-hour notice and without any public hearings — allowed under a provision of state code that permits cities to adopt temporary zoning changes for a “compelling reason that requires immediate action,” according to Salt Lake City Attorney Katie Lewis.
That compelling reason, to city officials, was a need to provide additional emergency winter overflow for the homeless as temperatures continue to drop in the dead of winter and the new homeless resource centers linger at or near capacity, along with current overflow options.
Friday’s meeting wasn’t raucous like past public meetings in reaction to the last time city leaders tried to site a homeless facility in the Sugar House neighborhood — but at least one Sugar House resident walked away Friday feeling like he was reliving that controversy.
“We already experienced this,” said John Blankevoort, who said he lives about a half mile from Fairmont Park in Sugar House. He left frustrated that Friday’s meeting didn’t include a public hearing to hear from the neighborhood being impacted.
“It’s almost like we have to bring the pitchforks and the torches to get rid of Frankenstein,” Blankevoort said. “At some point you have to consult the citizens of Sugar House to ask us ‘What do you think?’ Otherwise it seems like things are being taken out of our control and the right decisions aren’t being made with the citizens in mind.”
City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who represents the Sugar House area, said she’s “received a lot of feedback” in the 24 hours since Thursday’s announcement, and expressed that she shared concerns with neighbors about the impact of the shelter. But she also credited city officials with working sometimes sleepless nights to ensure the shelter will operate safely and smoothly.
“I want to thank the property owners and the immediate neighbors that have shown their support and again have concerns but understand why we need to do this,” Fowler said.
City leaders’ move to open a winter overflow shelter 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.
Nightly occupancy at each of the three new homeless resource centers vary, though they’ve lingered at or near capacity as temperatures drop. On colder nights such as those during the first two weeks of January, the centers have been at full capacity, according to a city staff report.
Some people experiencing homelessness have also refused to leave the downtown area. 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.
Some nights the Weigand Center’s occupancy has exceeded its fire code capacity, serving as many as 153 unique clients on a particular night, according to city documents.
Under the ordinance Salt Lake City adopted Friday, the zoning regulation allowing the Sugar House building to operate as an overnight shelter will expire after six months. Though city leaders have stated their intent to close the shelter by April 15, they could extend its use into July if need be. Any longer, however, would need to be approved in another zoning change.