SALT LAKE CITY — An already high-tension Salt Lake City Council meeting escalated rapidly Tuesday night when protesters demanding the Road Home’s downtown shelter stay open this winter began a booming chant.
“What will you do?”
Protesters — many from groups that have shut down Utah Inland Port Authority meetings including Civil Riot and Utahns Against Police Brutality — then effectively took over the meeting, chanting that phrase repeatedly until City Council members got up out of their seats and filed out, retreating through a back door.
The demonstrators erupted in cheers and applause, then crowded at the front of the council room around the dais, holding signs reading “We are not convinced Utah government is doing their best” and “Homeless does not mean rightless.”
“No beds, no peace,” protesters chanted, one man climbing on top of a table to lead the refrain.
The protesters packed into Tuesday night’s council meeting demanding city, county and state leaders keep the Road Home open through April, not reduce beds when it is closed, end arrests or ticketing of on-street campers, change legislation to allow new homeless resource centers to have more beds, and provide free transit fare for people staying in shelters.
This, after a more than 3 hour meeting earlier today when @slcCouncil members heard from dozens of stakeholders discussing all the efforts happening to keep people out of the cold while also closing the Road Home's downtown shelter at the end of this month #utpolhttps://t.co/vIOm34ODuU— Katie McKellar (@KatieMcKellar1) November 13, 2019
State officials — not city officials — own the downtown shelter property, and are still intent on closing it at the end of the month.
To Marvin Oliveros, who led many of the chants, that doesn’t matter. He said Salt Lake City leaders have a role to play.
“They hold heavy influence if not the sole decision-making skills on implementing those demands,” Oliveros told KSL. “So them trying to pass the buck or deflect responsibility, we’re not accepting.”
Tuesday night’s outburst was an extension of a protest last week amid longstanding concerns the new homeless centers, meant to replace the 1,100-bed downtown shelter, won’t have enough beds as winter descends.
But state, city and county officials are standing firm on their promises that people won’t be left out in the cold when the downtown shelter is supposed to close in less than three weeks, pointing to a variety of ways to house them, including motel vouchers, overflow shelter at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall, and a call to landlords to step forward with additional units.
Once protesters dispersed, continuing to chant as they walked out of City Hall, council members returned to their seats to continue their meeting.
Councilman Charlie Luke read a statement, noting city leaders’ longtime efforts to address homelessness issues and a more than three-hour work session held earlier Tuesday to hear from about a dozen players from state, city and county agencies all working on helping the homeless.
“The City Council has been open to communication and hard conversations regarding homelessness and issues surrounding the closure of the Road Home ... but it’s hard to continue a conversation when there is no respect, yelling and disregard of the many efforts of all involved, including the council, to help our less fortunate neighbors,” Luke said.
Luke continued: “The demands that are being requested are all things we agree with, but that we have little control over, at least by ourselves. We can certainly work with and ask UTA to collaborate with the resource centers to provide free fare. We have talked about looking into our criminal code. We are looking at all options to address this.”
Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who was in tears when she and other council members returned to their seats, said she became “emotional” because she and her colleagues “stay up late at night” worried about people freezing to death on the streets.
“I completely understand the anger,” she said, but expressed disappointment the council didn’t get to hear from every person in the audience who wanted to speak.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Twitter called the protest “disappointing.”
“We can do better,” Biskupski said. “In SLC we have never shied away from difficult conversations. If we can’t listen, we can’t move forward.”
Biskupski said “no elected official” in Salt Lake City is “turning their back on those experiencing homelessness.”
It is disappointing that tonight’s @slcCouncil meeting was effectively shut down while discussing homelessness. We can do better. In SLC we have never shied away from difficult conversations. If we can’t listen, we can’t move forward. Full statement below: pic.twitter.com/GDUrVDebPt— Mayor J. Biskupski (@slcmayor) November 13, 2019
“This is a difficult and statewide issue that has culminated in our city, and both branches are doing all they can to find compassionate solutions,” Biskupski said.
Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, who is retaining her seat on the council until she takes office in January, was not present, having left for an out-of-state family trip earlier that day.
Gathering facts from many players
Hours earlier, the City Council in its work session held a three-hour “fact-finding” meeting on homelessness issues. The meeting was a showcase of a hefty coalition of stakeholders invested in helping the homeless stay off the streets while also clearing the way for the downtown shelter to close.
Utah political leaders — including state, county and state officials — have been intent on closing the shelter, particularly after a state audit found drug use and safety concerns. The shelter’s closure is seen as a final step in the yearslong plan to move away from Salt Lake County’s old homeless system into a new, more service-focused one with three smaller homeless resource centers. Two in Salt Lake City are capped at 200 beds and the South Salt Lake men’s center is capped at 300 beds.
Skepticism has long lingered about whether the new centers’ capacity total of 700 beds would be enough to meet demand. State officials last year said the need for an additional overflow shelter would be a “worst-case scenario.” They expressed confidence that other methods to divert people from shelters would be enough.
The work session focused on efforts to transition into a system that abandons the old method of using the downtown emergency shelter. State, city and county officials all emphasized the work being done from across multiple agencies to ensure no one is left in the cold.
“We’re all working together to ensure no one gets left on the streets,” said Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, and a member of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
Leaders are sticking with their plan to use motel vouchers, the 58-mat overflow capacity at the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall, additional housing units found through new landlord partnerships and other forms of diversion to ensure the downtown shelter closes in less than three weeks.
Hill and other members of the coalition told the council there is an army of people working in various ways to ensure Utah’s most vulnerable aren’t left “suffering through our transition.”
Katherine Fife, director of programs and partnerships in Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s administration, said there’s a “huge shift” happening over the next three weeks, and many people are working to be flexible to address problems as they surface.
“It’s scary,” Fife said. “Do we all know that it’s going to work? No. But are we committed to doing things differently than we have in the past? Yes. Are we going to be able to adjust if these things don’t work? Absolutely. ... There are so many smart and willing people who are coming forward and being part of the solution.”
Officials say they’re on track, already seeing promising returns from their call to action to area landlords in a search for housing options. David Litvack, Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, and Michelle Hoon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, reported that 91 units have been identified in the last few weeks. So far, three people have been housed as part of that push, and 36 others are in the pipeline.
“I think the hardest part was getting started,” Litvack told KSL in an interview. He and Hoon were hopeful they’d be able to house their goal of 67 people by the end of the month.
“It’s ambitious, but we’re committed,” Hoon said.
Luke asked if all overflow options are exhausted, who will coordinate what happens to unsheltered individuals?
Litvack said it would be a “community decision” and a “collective decision,” with stakeholders “not waiting to see where we end up on the housing campaign to prepare to make that decision.”
“Whoever those decision-makers are, they’re going to have to be very nimble and very quick,” Luke replied.
Litvack said everyone’s “committed” to using all options — including motel vouchers, St. Vincent overflow, and potentially using Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center as an overnight “warming center” to act as a waiting area for clients waiting for beds to open up — all to make sure “there’s a warm space for everyone.”