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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams will launch a committee in January to review existing facilities in the city that serve homeless people and then create a road map moving forward.
"We're going to look at the location issue, which is an incredibly sensitive topic," Becker said.
The Homeless Services Site Evaluation Committee, which will be chaired by former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis and businesswoman Gail Miller, has been charged with evaluating and considering the best location for shelters and other emergency homeless services. The committee's recommendations will "help shape the future of these facilities in Salt Lake City," Becker said.
Recently, Becker met with Gov. Gary Herbert to discuss the issues related to the city's expanding business district coming into conflict with people who are clients of homeless services providers and a criminal element Becker says embeds itself among homeless people to conceal their illegal conduct.
Marty Carpenter, Herbert's chief of staff, said the governor believes there are legitimate questions about whether the homeless population is best served by the homeless shelter’s current location.
“There is no question historic Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande area have become magnets for the homeless, bringing to these areas an increased incidence in arrests for drugs, violent crime, and sexual solicitation. Appropriate steps need to be taken through the law enforcement and judicial processes to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate drug pushers while helping those who battle addiction access the help they need," said Carpenter in a statement.
"We need to ensure these important business corridors to continue to be economically viable. A shared solution reached by all stakeholders, including the business community, is paramount."
With the exception of the rescue missions in Salt Lake and Ogden, some shelters for people surviving domestic violence and St. Anne's shelter in Ogden, people experiencing homelessness along the Wasatch Front have nowhere else to turn to for the shelter our agency provides.
–Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home
Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, which houses, shelters and provides case management to homeless individuals and families, said while the current discussion is centered in Utah's capital city, the issue is regional and directly connected to a lack of affordable housing.
"In the absence of deeply affordable housing across the Wasatch Front, many people are forced into homelessness. With the exception of the rescue missions in Salt Lake and Ogden, some shelters for people surviving domestic violence and St. Anne's shelter in Ogden, people experiencing homelessness along the Wasatch Front have nowhere else to turn to for the shelter our agency provides. The Rio Grande corridor is less of a magnet and more of a last refuge for hundreds of people in distress," Minkevitch said.
Steven Callaway, who has been homeless for more than a decade, sleeps on a mat on the floor of St. Vincent de Paul's dining hall. He can't take his dog into the Road Home shelter so they stay in the overflow facility.
"Without this place, I would have no place to be. They make sure I take my meds and put my (nitroglycerin) patch on. Without theses services, we wouldn't have anything. This place here is our everything," he said.
Callaway said he has been told he needs heart surgery so he hopes to be settled in supportive housing where he can recuperate safely. "This waiting for housing is a joke. It can take up to a year to get in housing," he said.
Most homeless people have relatively simple housing needs, he said, "just a one-bedroom apartment that you can call home."
Not only are there too few supportive housing units, there's precious little affordable housing in Salt Lake City, Minkevitch said. Building more of both would do a great deal to relieve pressures on front-line service providers.
"To me, if they did that, a lot of people wouldn't be on this block," Callaway said.
Minkevitch says the community will always need shelters for immediate, emergent needs. But the need for affordable housing — and devising a means to encourage government and private investment in affordable housing — needs to be part of the committee's discussion.
"Safe, decent, deeply affordable housing will get the masses out of the Rio Grande corridor or whatever location the homeless shelter may reside. There has to be outflow. There has to be an exit strategy. Housing is the common denominator that provides that," he said.
A new report by Zillow, a national real estate research firm, says a single income earner in Salt Lake City needs an income of $28 an hour to afford median rental rates in the city.
There is need for 44,000 units of affordable housing statewide, state lawmakers were told this summer.
Presently, the Road Home shelters people at its community shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St., has an overflow operation at St. Vincent de Paul Center and has a winter shelter in Midvale. During the winter months, the Road Home serves about 1,000 people a night, he said.
The public process to start the rebuild the Road Home's Midvale shelter was, at times, contentious, Minkevitch said.
Finding new locations for homeless service providers would be a far greater challenge, said Les Singletary, who occasionally stays at the Road Home.
"Just look at the prison (relocation) and what's happening with that," Singletary said.
Lalana Ellis, who is homeless and spends nights sleeping on the streets with her teenage son or wandering the city, said Salt Lake City's services for homeless people "could be worse. I know darn well they could be better."
If it's done right, it can be successful. You'd have less people staying out on the streets consistently.
Ellis said she stayed in a shelter in California that consolidated services at one site. There were separate floors for families, men and women. The one-stop shopping was convenient for clients and law enforcement alike, she said. An abandoned building in the city's industrial area could be remodeled for that purpose, she said.
"If it's done right, it can be successful. You'd have less people staying out on the streets consistently," Ellis said.
But she acknowledges that relocating services for homeless people is fraught with challenges. "Nobody really wants it, but the issue's not going anywhere," she said.
Minkevitch says attempting to "transplant these issues from one address to another is very expensive and is not a solution."
If Salt Lake City and state partners have learned anything the past decade, it's housing is the key to curing homelessness, he said. The city has effectively ended homelessness among veterans and chronic homelessness has been cut by 72 percent since 2005.
Becker, in a prepared statement issued Friday, said Utah's success in ending chronic veteran homelessness was the impetus behind the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Committee.
“That accomplishment required hard work and the dedication of many individuals and organizations, but was possible because of the unique way our community comes together to productively solve problems,” he said.
“I know the same will be true for this renewed effort to address homelessness.”
Becker's administration has been under increasing pressure from the Pioneer Park Coalition, a private effort that has brought business interests, advocates, service providers and government officials together with an eye on creating "a comprehensive solution that will really change downtown Salt Lake," said the coalition's finance chairman, Josh Romney, at press conference last summer.
Becker said the future of homeless services is a broader community discussion, of which the Pioneer Park Coalition is one voice.
The mayor said he has met the coalition leaders and he has attended one or two coalition meetings personally and Elizabeth Buehler, Salt Lake City's homeless services coordinator, has regularly taken part.
"This is not a unilateral effort by them. We're trying to get everyone to the table rather than having everyone talking in their own arenas," he said.
The committee's work is expected to be completed by late fall, according to Becker.