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SALT LAKE CITY — Susan Bowlden, a South Salt Lake resident, said she lived near the Sugar House site that was originally proposed for a new 150-bed homeless resource center — and she breathed a breath of relief when the controversial site was pulled from consideration.
But a few weeks later, Bowlden said she was left dismayed when she heard the news that two sites in her city would be under consideration for an even larger facility.
"I thought, 'Come on, this is not OK,'" she said Tuesday night at a meeting on Capitol Hill.
But Bowlden wasn't just thinking of her own city — she also worried for West Valley City, where three other sites have been selected as options.
"They've chosen two cities that have low tax bases, lower income people and crime already," she said. "I don't think it's a good idea to be put in these areas. They need to choose an area that's already not overburdened."
"This isn't just about me saying 'not-in-my-backyard,'" Bowlden added. "It's just my backyard already has enough in it."
Bowlden was one of an estimated 400 concerned South Salt Lake and West Valley City residents who attended Salt Lake County's first public forum to gather input on the five potential sites proposed for a new homeless resource center.
The plan to build two new 200-bed homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and a third shelter in Salt Lake County with between 200 and 300 beds are part of Salt Lake city, county and state efforts to overhaul Utah's troubled homeless services model — with hopes to alleviate the drug-riddled and overflowing 1,100-bed Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood.
But South Salt Lake and West Valley City leaders are pushing back hard on the potential that the third site could land in their communities — and their residents joined that fight Tuesday.
Heather Hansen of West Valley City said her four children — ages 6 to 16 — attend schools near all three of the sites. She said if a site is selected in West Valley City, she'll pull her kids out of the schools and move them somewhere else.
"I don't think it's fair that West Valley City is being picked on," she said. "We don't have the resources. We don't have the economic base. We've already done a lot for the problems in our community, and Salt Lake County shouldn't get to add more."
Hansen said it's "not possible" that the shelter won't impact her community in a negative way.
"Homelessness is chronic mental illness and addiction," she said. "It's going to follow wherever they're putting beds for these people."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams was present through the duration of Tuesday's meeting, surrounded by residents who took their turns expressing their concerns.
When Umu Tafisi got her turn to talk with McAdams, she told him the process so far has been "rushed without transparency to the community" and that the county's selection committee needs to think things through more "logically" before making a recommendation to the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee, due March 30.
"This is all happening at lightning speed," she said. "We need better, well-thought out, nonrushed decisions that will be made that will be real solutions to the homeless population and will be a better fit to the communities."
Tafisi said she was born and raised in South Salt Lake and served as Miss South Salt Lake in 2003. She said she now lives in Utah County, but her parents live across the street from the Main Street site in South Salt Lake. She said she's concerned about how a shelter could impact her roots.
"Right now South Salt Lake is strapped for resources," Tafisi said. "There are only 24,000 residents in that little city. They take in a fair share if not more of a chunk of social services in the community. It just makes no more sense to have them shoulder more of the burden."
McAdams welcomed the input, calling the turnout "exactly what we wanted."
The county mayor said the five sites are only options, and the county is "continuing to look for other sites that could work."
"We are currently analyzing some additional sites that could work, and if public or other stakeholders have ideas or suggestions, we'd encourage them to work them out with us," McAdams said in an interview before the public meeting.
The county mayor pointed out the city and county have been working for over two years to try to fundamentally change the state's homeless services system, but he understands if residents perceive the process as being rushed.
"I hope people understand we're listening. We're trying," McAdams said. "It's never too late for input. We are listening, we are interested in hearing their concerns and their opinions. Ultimately what this is about is helping us to make an informed decision."
Utah House Rep. Angela Romero attended the open house to learn more about the proposals, she said, since two of the potential sites in West Valley City are in her district.
Romero said she doesn't want to participate in a "not-in-my-backyard philosophy," but she is "concerned" about her district and the services it already provides.
"Do we want to turn people away? No," she said. "But how much more can a district carry for the whole county and the whole state?"
Attendees weren't just from South Salt Lake or West Valley.
Donald Byrd from Kearns — a real estate agent in Salt Lake Valley — said he attended the open house because he had concerns about how it could impact the cities.
He said the "west side" already has a stigma compared to the east, and he worried a homeless center would "devastate" the communities.
"It wouldn't make (their communities) any better, that's for sure," he said, adding that regardless of how the new homeless center turns out, it will still have a negative impact on the cities because of perceptions already associated with homeless shelters.
"That does more damage than anything," he said. "For a community that's already stigmatized, it would be devastating."
However, Ashley Cleveland, a Salt Lake City resident who attended the workshop, brought a different perspective.
She said she experienced homelessness from ages 8 to 16 — a time she said was "traumatizing."
"I think there are a lot of positive things that can be happening with this conversation that I feel is being left out because people are being scared," she said.
She said people are making "a lot of assumptions" about homelessness, and she hopes people who are opposing the sites need to put themselves in other's shoes.
"They need to think about how close they are to becoming homeless themselves and about how many people they might already know who struggle with it," she said.