SALT LAKE CITY — As the end of summer draws nearer, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wants residents of Utah’s capital to know she has a plan for the cold, dark days of winter.
That plan, the mayor says, braces for if or when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. It includes multimillion-dollar programs to assist businesses, schools and renters, as Utahns continue to struggle amid the pandemic. Her administration has also proposed the creation of a new public Wi-Fi system to help increase internet access in public spaces.
“As any parent or caregiver will tell you, keeping a job, parenting every minute of the day, making sure the kids are getting their education, and keeping everyone physically and mentally healthy has been an absolute challenge during this pandemic,” Mendenhall said in a prerecorded speech shown during the Salt Lake City Council’s meeting on Tuesday. “Looking at the coming months until a vaccine, this winter will be very hard on many families. As a city, we must have their backs.”
The mayor’s winter plan also focuses on an issue that has long been what Mendenhall called a “poignant and painful” problem for Salt Lake City, long before the COVID-19 made everything worse: homelessness.
“To address the current, escalated homelessness crisis on our streets, we are working hard,” she said.
In that video, the mayor announced a new, two-phase initiative, called the Community Commitment Program, which her administration is building to clean up Salt Lake City streets of biowaste and homeless encampments in 12 weeks, as well as increased outreach to connect those living on the streets with “on-the-spot” legal, social work, drug treatment and housing services.
That plan includes siting a new temporary winter overflow homeless shelter — which is still in process in partnership with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness — and a new approach to cleaning up homeless encampments, which have sprung up again throughout the city this summer.
COVID-19 winter plan
“After living with the realities of COVID-19 for six months, and facing the reality that it will be many months before we have a vaccine, we want you to know that your city is committed to helping you weather this generational storm,” Mendenhall said in her prerecorded speech.
She then outlined her COVID-19 winter plan, which focuses on five key areas: health, education and childcare, economic support, housing stability and homeless services, and operations and service from the city.
“My No. 1 priority this winter is your health,” the mayor said.
Mendenhall also said city officials are preparing for when a COVID-19 vaccine might become available.
“While we don’t know exactly when it will be here, we’ve got to be ready when it’s time to stand up that operation,” Mendenhall said. “This winter is the right time to make that plan and solidify how we’ll communicate and provide access to a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Mendenhall said city leaders have already started coordinating with health care providers to prepare, “because the day that a vaccination becomes widely available, I want our residents to understand the importance of getting vaccinated and have quick streamlined access to it.”
While the mayor said she’s “heartened” that the city has seen stable and declining COVID-19 case trends for more than 30 days — which she said shows the mask mandate is working — Mendenhall outlined several initiatives to increase COVID-19 care for vulnerable communities.
She noted her recent budget proposal for $200,000 in increased funding for the Association for Utah Health and $150,000 for the Fourth Street Clinic. The Association for Utah Health provides community outreach and support for residents impacted by COVID-19, including prescription filling and rental assistance. The Fourth Street Clinic provides health care for people experiencing homelessness.
The mayor also pointed to her budget proposal that includes $1.6 million to increase YouthCity programs this school year to fill child care, educational support and social service gaps caused by COVID-19.
The mayor has also proposed the city use $75,000 to create the “backbone” for a new public Wi-Fi system on Ensign Peak to help “bridge the digital divide,” after the pandemic limited many city residents from accessing free internet at libraries. The new system could provide access in public parks or buildings, and could include three mobile sites that could be moved to accommodate areas in need, according to city officials.
“This infrastructure will provide a multi-point solution for public Wi-Fi and provide greater connection in areas of the city experiencing digital inequity,” Mendenhall said. “A system like this could be the difference in a homework assignment getting turned in on time, a bill getting paid, a job application being submitted, or a doctor’s appointment getting scheduled.”
For housing stability, the mayor said her administration has identified a $9 million housing stability package for mortgage, rental and rapid rehousing assistance, with the first $1.1 million set aside for ZIP codes that have been the most impacted by the pandemic.
The city has also launched an effort to raise $1 million to help residents who did not qualify for or could not access federal stimulus money, called Raise Up SLC. The fundraiser seeks to provide a no-fee debit card residents can use on living essentials, including rental or mortgage payments.
To prepare for winter, which has always been a tough lift for addressing homelessness after months of warm weather that make on-street camping not as life-threatening, Mendenhall’s plan includes a new approach.
Mendenhall described the plan to the City Council as an “intensive,” 12-week process to not just enforce Salt Lake City’s no-camping ordinance, but an effort to connect those experiencing homelessness with the resources they need to get off the streets. Those service-focused efforts will begin weeks before encampment cleanup begins, which will stretch out for four days.
“So after all of the investment of time and connections and resources, then those encampments would be closed,” the mayor said. “So it’s almost a completely opposite way of the way that some of the encampment resolution is happening right now, which is a notice and then ask for people to vacate the premises. This is a pretty intensive time and people coming in to help people address whatever barriers they might have to accessing the resources and getting into housing.”
The mayor compared the program to Project Homeless Connect, a one-stop-shop homeless services event that has previously been held in the Salt Palace Convention Center. But rather than asking the homeless to go to the Salt Palace, Mendenhall said legal, drug treatment, and housing services will be brought to them.
An enhanced cleanup and outreach would be focused on at least seven locations known for homeless encampments — Taufer Park, downtown near the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church area, around North Temple, the Ballpark neighborhood, the Granary District, and under the I-80 overpass at 700 East, according to city officials.
The program could be started right away, Mendenhall told the City Council, but will exhaust all of the funds currently budgeted for homeless cleanup by the end of November. An expanded cleanup effort would cost over $233,000, and require a budget adjustment.
The mayor’s announcement of the Community Commitment Program comes after Salt Lake City officials, just days after Mendenhall took office, came under fire last winter for how the city handles its homeless population and amid criticisms of the homeless system lacking immediately available beds.
That January, Mendenhall opened the Sugar House temporary winter overflow shelter, which this spring shut down as city officials promised it would. But once again, Salt Lake City is working to ensure there will be another winter overflow shelter — an effort that is currently underway in collaboration with Salt Lake County and the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, Mendenhall said.
Budget amendments are subject to City Council support. Though members of the council questioned Mendenhall on Tuesday about the plan, none expressed opposition to her proposals.
However, Councilman Andrew Johnston, who also oversees homeless services for Volunteers of America, which operates the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, asked an age-old question: If Salt Lake City was going to enforce its no-camping ordinance, where will people experiencing homelessness be told to go in order to avoid a constitutional rights violation?
That’s where the winter overflow shelter comes into play, Mendenhall said. Though Salt Lake County and the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to end homelessness are working on a plan, they still need to site a “countywide facility to host that overflow,” the mayor said.
“Part of the discussion includes the contemplation of designated camp areas, which isn’t something I’m promoting or bringing to you at this time,” Mendenhall said. She noted that people who would rather camp than be in shelters have done so for decades, so that has been and will continue to be a tough issue.
“So Andrew, there’s not a great answer of where exactly people go who choose to remain on the streets,” Mendenhall said.
Johnston expressed frustration at how Salt Lake City has been “under attack” for allowing public camping while stakeholders continue to call homelessness a statewide issue, “and yet it still falls to the city.”
“We’re part of the solution, but we’re taking the brunt of this over and over again,” Johnston said. “People are camping here, and we allow them to, frankly, because there’s not a realistic option anywhere else.”