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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Shelter disagreements create tension between city, county leaders

By Katie McKellar  |  Posted Jan 11th, 2017 @ 10:42pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — A rift has developed between Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City leaders who disagree about overhauling the city and county homeless services model.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says he has major concerns about the money Salt Lake City leaders have so far spent to purchase land for the four homeless resource center sites, as well as city officials' statements that the Road Home's Rio Grande shelter will close when all four sites open their doors.

In attempts to address outrage from Sugar House neighborhoods over the 653 E. Simpson Ave. site, McAdams also said he has proposed building a mixed-income development with deeply affordable housing on that site rather than a resource center.

McAdams said he pitched the idea to Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Monday, but the proposal was not agreed upon — though city leaders say the proposal is still on the table, chalking up the friction between the city and county to poor communication.

Now locked in a stalemate with uncertainty on how to move forward, McAdams' Collective Impact Steering Committee delayed its Wednesday agenda, which included population recommendations for the four centers.

When McAdams told the room full of Collective Impact stakeholders about the county's friction with the city, he reassured them it wouldn't invalidate their work over the past two years to create a new model for homeless services.

"This isn't the first time we've had disagreement as a group. We've had challenges in the past; we've worked through them," he said. "We'll move forward. We have worked far too long and far too hard to abandon our goals because of disagreement. We have important work to do and nobody is going to give up now."

During his meeting with Biskupski on Monday, McAdams said he proposed a mixed-income development at 653 E. Simpson Ave. that would include market rate, affordable and deeply affordable housing that would have been funded by some of the $18 million Salt Lake City leaders set aside last year for affordable housing.

McAdams left that meeting with the impression that city leaders had rejected that proposal on Monday, but David Litvack, Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, said city officials said they have not had time to "vet" the proposal and there has been miscommunication between the county and the city.

"This is a new idea the administration has not had the opportunity to talk to our partners on the City Council about,' Litvack said Wednesday.

Biskupski was not present at the Collective Impact meeting, but her spokesman Matthew Rojas said the two mayors are expected to revisit the issue in the near future.

When McAdams heard that city officials are considering it, he said: "I'm encouraged to hear that."

But two other issues are also creating tensions between McAdams and Biskupski:

Cost

McAdams told reporters that Salt Lake City won't be fully reimbursed for the full $10 million that has been spent on two of the four sites — which would have eaten up at least half of the $20 million the Utah Legislature has agreed to set aside for homeless site purchase and facility construction.

McAdams said county officials expected site purchases to cost in the "ballpark" of just $4 million, rather than a $10 million to $12 million range that city officials have set.

"When we found out the budget for the site acquisition, it certainly was concerning to us," the county mayor said. "Part of our collective impact approach is to make sure we spend every dollar to its maximum effectiveness because there is a human cost to every dollar we spend."

McAdams said his proposal for the Simpson Avenue site could have helped "alleviate that sticker shock" and "help us move forward to meet the county's needs to address the financial concerns while responding to the neighborhood concerns."

While Litvack said McAdams' proposal is now being vetted, he disagreed that a $4 million estimate has been the expectation all along, saying city officials knew the cost would rise when the decision was made in late September to build four resource centers rather than two.

"I don't know where that is coming from," Litvack said when asked about McAdams' expectations, "but we always knew — particularly when we went from talking about two sites to four sites — that we were anticipating $10 million to $12 million."

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But McAdams said, "I don't think anybody was aware what had been paid for for the sites."

"We're just responding to the information as we receive it, and trying in the most constructive way possible to find a path forward and make it work — make the decisions that the city has made work," McAdams said.

Rio Grande shelter closure

While city leaders have called for the immediate closure of the Road Home on Rio Grande Street once all four of the new centers are fully operational, McAdams is determined to stick with an "explicit and clear" message that there should be "no fixed timeline" for closing the shelter.

The county mayor said the shelter should only close when its demand has been completely drawn down by the new model.

But since Rio Grande shelter's capacity is 1,100, concerned residents have questioned whether the four 150-bed shelters will have enough capacity to serve the entire homeless population.

Josh Romney, a member of the Pioneer Park Coalition and son of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, worried during Wednesday's meeting that the downtown shelter may never close if city and county leaders don't agree on a more solid plan other than when there's no more demand.

"Having a loose goal does not satisfy me," he said.

Rojas said Biskupski has "so much faith" in the new homeless model that by the time the fourth center is open, the demand for the downtown shelter will no longer exist. That's why, Rojas said, Biskupski feels confident in saying the shelter will close once all four resource centers are operational.

"That is not all that different than saying we want to demonstrate the demand will be gone before we close The Road Home (downtown)," Rojas said.

Litvack again chalked the city's friction with the county up to miscommunication, but he added that the city is working toward a goal to alleviate Salt Lake City's nearly singular role in Utah's homeless services.

"My impression is we're just not communicating well when it comes to the shared goal of eventually closing services at the Rio Grande facility and the shared goal between the city and county that Salt Lake City does not continue to disproportionately share the burden," Litvack said.

"We're not talking with each other in some ways; we're talking past each other."

Public input

Later Wednesday, Salt Lake City leaders hosted two public workshops to gather input on concerns about the four homeless resource sites, with city staff, police officers and some City Council members present to answer questions.

Booths were set up for each site, where residents could write concerns and possible solutions on comment cards and white poster paper.

The Simpson Avenue table contained a mix of comments, but many urged city leaders to simply reconsider the site, with comments including: "No site on Simpson!" and "Move it!"

Biskupski was not present at the workshops, but Litvack addressed lines of people who approached him to relay their concerns to the mayor.

Shane Stroud, who lives a few blocks away from the Simpson Avenue site, was one who listed off his concerns to Litvack, urging city leaders to do more to engage the public on the four homeless sites while also considering alternatives for the Sugar House site.

Stroud said he was encouraged by McAdams' proposal to consider a different plan for Simpson Avenue, and he urged Biskupski's administration to take his idea seriously.

"The fact that (McAdams) believes this site may be more appropriate for affordable housing should give the city pause," he said. "I hope they consider it."

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