MIDVALE — Already faced with Utah’s first heavy snowfall, Salt Lake County homeless officials this week had hoped to finalize details on two facilities to help house the homeless as part of a winter overflow plan.
But then, Midvale Mayor Robert Hale publicly voiced opposition to using a hotel — the La Quinta Inn east of the Midvale Family Family Shelter on 7200 South — as part of that plan.
“What can we do to request a change?” Hale asked during the State Homeless Coordinating Committee meeting on Tuesday. State officials, in response, told him the decision was up to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
The coalition has spent months trying to come up with a solution to bring the homeless camping on the streets out of the cold, after Salt Lake City leaders promised last year’s winter shelter, the Sugar House Temporary Shelter, would be just that — temporary. It shuttered in April.
Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has further strained Utah’s homeless system, putting pressure on homeless resource centers’ ability to fill their beds to capacity while keeping clients safe and socially distant. Salt Lake County has also executed contracts with other hotels to house homeless who are at “high risk” to COVID-19.
But Hale, in an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday, said the small, 6-square-mile city of Midvale can’t take any more impacts from homelessness, already the host of the 300-bed Midvale Family Shelter just across I-15. Another 140 homeless adults housed in the hotel, Hale said, would put too much pressure on Midvale’s already strained police resources.
“It’s not that I dislike the homeless. I feel for them. I love them as a brother,” Hale said, explaining how he and his wife on multiple occasions have helped house and feed homeless individuals under their own roof. “But when the county drops a bombshell on us of putting up to 140 homeless into a motel ... it’s going to overwhelm our little city.”
Hale said if that many more homeless individuals are housed in Midvale, “it’s going to bring additional issues that we are not able to provide safety from.” He said that area around the La Quinta, including the nearby Motel 6, is already a “crime hot spot” that “keeps our police very busy.”
Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said the Midvale mayor had raised some concerns during a walk-through of the La Quinta a week ago, but she was caught off guard by his public opposition.
“We thought we addressed those concerns,” she said.
Hill said the coalition “carefully reviewed” eight sites in multiple cities using a series of criteria based on experiences last winter. Of those, two were eliminated early on, and of the remaining six, the La Quinta “was the top choice, in part because it includes a willing owner,” she said.
The plan to use the La Quinta in Midvale “was a carefully considered decision that involved a representative from Midvale City who attended our overflow meetings.” She said the hotel’s property owner had approached the coalition “in the hope of being part of the solution while also helping his business, which is facing reduced reservations due to the pandemic.”
“We hoped to open this facility within the next week,” Hill said. “To now say this decision was made without proper deliberation and ask us to go back to the drawing board is to put political problems on the backs of homeless people who have no options.”
Hill said a provider “reviewed the lease with the property owner” on Tuesday. “They are ready to sign and we have funding from state, county and private providers lined up,” she said.
But Hale’s comments now complicate the plan.
“We will try to reach out and see if he is willing to discuss further,” Hill said, “but it means we won’t be able to serve people as soon as planned.”
In total, the coalition hopes to find 200 additional beds for this year’s winter overflow plan, in addition to the up to 50 that already exist at the St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall, up to 80 hotel vouchers for women, and 130 rooms in the high-risk homeless hotel. In addition to the La Quinta, Hill said the coalition is working on siting a second facility as part of the winter overflow plan to house 60 to 80 people. She declined to reveal the location “as we work with the mayor of that location.”
Hill said the coalition has aimed to be mindful of concentration of services when searching for locations.
“Salt Lake City is also concerned about the concentration of shelters in their borders,” she said. “So we have tried to look beyond Salt Lake City, which has more services and shelters than any city, while also minimizing transportation costs.”
Hale said the impact of these winter shelters needs to be “spread a little further out” in the Salt Lake Valley, and not concentrate impact in his city. Perhaps, he said, Midvale may just have to cope with hosting another facility, but that means the city will be forced to ask for more money.
“It’s just that we need to swallow hard and make a difficult decision, and that might be that we end up with it,” Hale said. “In which case we’ll be asking for more funding. There’s just no way to deal with this as we are.”
While Midvale can’t force a hotel to not do business, Hale questioned whether Midvale’s land use ordinances would allow an overflow shelter to be used there. He noted that during his tour of the facility, it was discussed that a portion of the hotel would be “blocked off” for homeless clients. “That takes it to another category, in my opinion,” he said.
“We’d hate to have that business guy lose his business license because he’s not following the ordinance of the city,” Hale said.
Hill said the coalition can “certainly just pay for rooms for people experiencing homelessness, but I would hope the city would see the advantage of having extra security and case management for individuals placed in the hotel.”
“We offered and have contracted for security services to ensure the safety of our clients but also to address the city’s concerns,” she said. “We were also planning to ensure the people housed at the hotel were those ready to move into permanent housing. That the city would prefer that we not provide support to these clients is short-sighted at best.”
Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships for Salt Lake County who has been working with the coalition, was hopeful a solution could be reached between the coalition and Midvale.
“I’m hopeful it will all work out,” Fife said. “And if it’s not with Midvale, then, you know Salt Lake County appreciates all that Midvale does, and they’re a valued partner. If there’s anything that Salt Lake County or the coalition can do to help us all feel better about moving forward and create a win-win ... we all want to do that.”
“If that means we look at Midvale this year, great,” Fife said. “If that means we’re looking at another community that’s willing to step up ... that’s great. No battles. No battles.”