The Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday to approve a new process to establish homeless resource centers in the city, shifting from a conditional-use process and ending the mayor's temporary ban on new centers.

The new process, which creates an overlay zoning district, essentially allows any district in the city to possibly house a resource center, while also not specifying where those resource centers could be allowed. The overlay will be adopted into the zoning code with updates to the existing regulations that apply to homeless resource centers and homeless shelters.

The plan to establish a new process came shortly after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall withdrew her support from a proposed homeless shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood and initiated a petition to ban new permanent homeless shelters in the city.

The initial six-month ban — which excluded temporary winter overflow shelters — was approved by the Salt Lake City Council and was later extended. Salt Lake City's planning division was tasked, at the time of the ban, 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 new process was introduced in November in a public information session by the city's planning division. Since the ordinance's introduction, a number of concerns regarding the process were raised by advocates, homeless resource providers and individuals experiencing homelessness.

What is the difference between the two processes?

The shift from a conditional use application to an overlay zoning district essentially extends the process for applying to create a new homeless resource center and transfers final approval of centers 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 the additional factors that need to be outlined in an application 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 to code regarding fence heights, landscaping and building design standards.

Concerns for the extended process

While the introduction of the proposed process signaled movement in lifting the moratorium, homeless resource providers voiced concerns early on.

"In terms of the city putting a complete moratorium on permanent facilities like Salt Lake City has. It's something that's a challenge for sure to have that moratorium in place. So we're eager to see something move forward," said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home, when the proposition for an overlay zoning district was first introduced.

The lack of guidance regarding potential areas for permanent homeless resource centers and the extended process under the overlay district has been a concern for providers.

Sean McMillan of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, encouraged City Council members to move forward with a recommendation that would place a time limitation of six to nine months to mitigate the challenges of the applicant. The recommendation did not make it into the final draft of the ordinance.

Pushback on the final vote

The seven-member City Council voted unanimously to approve the overlay zoning district, placing future approval of permanent homeless resource centers squarely in its own lap. The vote was met with significant pushback and frustration during the formal meeting's public comment period on Tuesday.

"Today's the same day that the last of 600 people were kicked out of the shelters after winter overflow. All of those people, the only option that was given to them was street camping. So on the same day that we're proposing to spend $440 million, we are actively kicking people out to camp on the streets," said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, referring to Mendenhall's proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which was also announced Tuesday.

Garvin outlined the proposed budget, pointing to the $110 million including $7.2 million for the police chief's office; $70 million for information technology; and $6.8 million for the mayor's staff.

"Last year y'all allocated $6 million for affordable housing and I approve of that, I support that. That is a good step in the right direction," said Garvin, going on to explain that just one project carried a $12 million price tag to purchase the building and approximately $4 million in renovations. "So $6 million is a drop in the bucket, and when we compare it against a $440 million budget or even $110 million policing budget, we see it as the drop in the bucket that it really is."

Additional public comments pushed back on the Salt Lake City Council's approach to homelessness overall, calling for a shift away from congregate shelters.

"We're wasting so much money when there's cheaper, more viable options that people want. People are camping out in tents in the middle of winter because they prefer that because everyone deserves the right to privacy," said Kseniya Kniazeva, founder of Nomad Alliance.

View Comments

Advocates have called for sanctioned camping and an end to abatements of homeless encampments. Another public commenter echoed the call for more housing options.

"I believe that non-congregate housing options are the key to help resolve the homeless crisis. In my experience, there are not enough shelters with the capacity of the amount of homeless in the winter. And individuals are freezing, because of overflow are being pushed away, because of fair weather conditions and spring and summer, and constant abatements are losing their belongings year round," said Daniel Taylor.

Several individuals experiencing homelessness expressed frustration at the city's perceived lack of progress.

"I've lost too many people to suicide, murder, to simply being left behind. They've froze to death or they starve or they died in the heat. And you know, maybe we wouldn't have to be here having this conversation if those things could be addressed in a proactive way," said Brandon, who declined to give his last name.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.