Salt Lake voters split on decision to move homeless services from downtown

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SALT LAKE CITY — A recent poll conducted for indicates Salt Lake City residents are evenly divided on whether services for homeless people should be moved from the downtown area.

The survey of 366 registered voters, conducted April 9-15, found that 49 percent favor moving shelters and other services from the Pioneer Park area while 45 percent said they were opposed. Seven percent said they were undecided.

The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percent.

While the results provided no mandate, they "communicate the complexities of the issue," said Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, which operates a community shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St.

"It’s a very challenging issue. There are benefits to having a better facility. At the same time, there are benefits to having more housing so fewer people need the facility," Minkevitch said.

Elizabeth Buehler, homeless services coordinator for Salt Lake City, said poll results were not surprising "considering the comments we've already heard from the public around downtown and other neighborhoods."

In January, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker impaneled a 28-member Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission to make recommendations regarding the future of homeless service facilities in Salt Lake City. The commission is looking at Catholic Community Services of Utah's dining hall and homeless resource center, Fourth Street Clinic, The Road Home, Volunteers of America - Utah, Rescue Mission and the state Department of Workforce Services.

"The reason we've pulled this commission together is to really look at these disparate ideas and try to bring them together," Buehler said.

The commission is led by former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis and Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. Buehler said it is on track to deliver its recommendation to elected officials by the end of the year.

It's not surprising there's a divergence of opinion about what's happening and what should happen. But I also think there's a critical mass of concern about it. I think the mayor's commission … is really trying to be thoughtful in addressing what the concerns are.

–Jason Mathis, Downtown Alliance

Jason Mathis, executive director of Salt Lake's Downtown Alliance, said the poll results provided no clear directive.

"It's not surprising there's a divergence of opinion about what's happening and what should happen. But I also think there's a critical mass of concern about it. I think the mayor's commission … is really trying to be thoughtful in addressing what the concerns are," he said.

"The thing that everyone should be starting out with, the principle that should be guiding all of the questions, really is: What's in the best interest of homeless people? I think most observers would say, 'The way we're providing services as a community is not necessarily the safest for homeless people, nor does it provide the greatest amount of dignity for homeless people.'"

The community's collaborative efforts to house homeless veterans and people experiencing chronic homelessness have been highly successful, he said.

"I think we still have a long way to go as a community in providing emergency homeless services. I think the commission is trying to get at, 'What's the best way to do that?'" Mathis said.

Minkevitch said homeless services providers have "demonstrated the results of what we can do." Chronic homelessness has dropped by 91 percent over the past decade under the state's "Housing First" initiative, according to a recent report by the state Division of Housing and Community Development.

But there are few housing options for people working low-wage jobs, Minkevitch said. If they have an unanticipated expense such as a medical bill or an automobile repair, they may not be able to make their rent and they have no other options than to stay at the homeless shelter.

"The need for housing stability cannot be understated. It's critically important and yields benefits on a number of fronts. It's what's best for children, for our school districts, for our future workforce and for quality of life. But also for these people personally and for the community so we don't have greater numbers of people turning to the shelter as their only housing option."

According to the poll results, 58 percent of Salt Lake residents in the city's northwest quadrant — those closest to homeless services — favor moving the community shelter.

But a full half of the people in the southeast part of the city oppose moving the shelter.

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Marjorie Cortez


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