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Advocates speak out against proposed process for Salt Lake City’s homeless shelters

SHARE Advocates speak out against proposed process for Salt Lake City’s homeless shelters
Utah officials announced plans for affordable housing and temporary winter overflow shelter on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

The Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance that would change the process of approving a permanent homeless resource center in the city on April 18.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Salt Lake City's unsheltered population has weathered two winters over the 18 months since Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a temporary ban on new permanent homeless shelters in the city.

The ban was issued in October 2021 shortly after she withdrew her support for a proposed homeless shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood. The temporary ban — which excluded temporary winter overflow shelters — was then approved by the Salt Lake City Council and was meant to last for six months but ultimately was extended.

Salt Lake City's Planning Division was tasked by Mendenhall to find a "more balanced path forward." Members of the division were asked to include considerations for districts that already housed permanent resource centers, as well as community concerns.

The plan was finally unveiled by the planning division in November in a public information session. The planning division proposed that the Salt Lake City Council adopt an overlay zoning district to regulate future homeless resource centers and homeless shelters. The overlay would be adopted into the zoning code with updates to the existing regulations that apply to homeless resource centers and homeless shelters.

What’s the difference from the current process?

The shift from a conditional use application to an overlay zoning district essentially extends the process and transfers final approval from the planning commission to the City Council. The conditional use process allowed homeless resource centers in certain districts of the city, while the overlay applies to every district except for manufacturing districts. Both processes still require an application outlining the request, along with security and operation plans but the overlay adds additional requirements for approval.

Some of those additional factors include:

  • The ratio of homeless-related services proposed in Salt Lake City compared to other jurisdictions in Salt Lake and Davis counties.
  • The anticipated impacts on city services, including fire, police and any other city department that would be involved in providing services to the facility.
  • The anticipated impact on other government entities that may provide service to the facility, if the information is readily available from the government entities.
  • The anticipated impact on the health and safety of public spaces within a quarter-mile of the proposed facility.

The change would also allow modifications now allowed by code to fence heights, landscaping and building design standards.

Planning commission recommendations

The proposed ordinance has slowly moved through the city's gears, with amendments being made over the months. The planning commission upon feedback from stakeholders made two unanimous recommendations to the Salt Lake City Council during a work session on March 21. The city planners recommended that:

  • The council should expedite review of a homeless resource center overlay petition and make a decision within 90 days of the planning commission's recommendation.
  • Homeless resource centers with 40 beds or less be allowed in any zoning district that allows residential uses through a conditional use process.

Both recommendations were met with pushback from the Salt Lake City Council. Members of the council reduced the second recommendation from 40 people to 10 people, a move that was met with an outcry by some community members in a public hearing.

"It is very important that we have enough beds and shelter space for our unhoused siblings. The proposal does not even make a dent and continues to exacerbate the issue," said the Rev. Brigette Weier, who volunteered at “movie nights” held at the First United Methodist Church to offer the homeless a place to stay during the coldest nights of the winter.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson also appeared in the public hearing to address the ordinance. Anderson has announced his plans to run in the 2024 election for Salt Lake City mayor and has been a steadfast critic of Mendenhall, who announced her reelection bid on Wednesday.

"Our city is at its lowest moral point in terms of its treatment of people who are most in the fight. If I left my dog outdoors to freeze to death, I would rightly be prosecuted, yet our elected city officials have left human beings outdoors this brutal winter to freeze to death and suffer untold tragedies demonstrating an uncivilized cruelty," Anderson said.

"For the sake of fundamental decency, stop prohibiting and unreasonably limiting shelters in our community and instead reverse course, provide shelter that is a solution that promotes the interests of residents, businesses and homeless people alike," he added.

Ultimately, the recommendation to provide an exception for homeless resource centers with 40 beds or less was completely removed.

Shot clocks and hot seats

The proposed process and its extended timeline have been a point of concern for homeless resource providers. Those concerns are what prompted the recommendation by the planning commission to expedite the council review of a homeless resource center overlay petition. The 90-day deadline was met with resistance by the council.

"I do think there's valid reasons for any organization or person or body to ask us to go faster than we're doing and that's something that I'm frustrated by a lot, but in this case I don't know that we want a shot clock over our heads," said Councilman Darin Mano. "I do feel like, as a council member representing a district with the homeless resource center, I would hate for that decision to be to not be given the amount of time because we're talking about permanent homeless resources."

The proposal removes an administrative path to approval for homeless resource centers and instead puts the City council in the hot seat, and the council has seemingly begun to feel the heat given its hesitancy to submit to a deadline.

"In the end, these are human beings that need shelter. So in some ways, I wish it wasn't on our backs, but it really is and I I don't see a better solution than what's been presented," Mano added.

Sean McMillan of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness furthered the planning commission's recommendation in a public hearing, encouraging that the entire process have a time limitation of six to nine months to mitigate the challenges of the applicant. The weight of the council's responsibility was also acknowledged by providers in the same hearing.

"We want to reiterate our support of a collaborative and multicity solution to meet the needs. And then I also want to recognize the really significant change that this proposal outlines and what that means for you in your role as council members," said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home. "This really has the City Council in the driver's seat and we appreciate you taking that role."

Next steps?

The Salt Lake City Council will likely vote on the proposed ordinance in its next formal meeting on April 18. The council faces a deadline of May 3, at which point the proposal will expire and the conditional use process will be reinstated. A return to the previous method isn't opposed by everyone.

"The council should let the (homeless resource center) overlay return to the processes established before Mayor Mendenhall made the deathly mistake of placing a moratorium on new or expanded resources for the city's most vulnerable humans. To place the burden of life-saving care of sacred lives in the hands of lengthy bureaucracy is a display of incompetency for the City Council members who have been elected as competent decision-makers," said Carl Moore of Unsheltered Utah.