Salt Lake City mayor unveils plans to handle COVID-19 issues, homelessness in coming months

(Francisco Kjolseth, Pool Photo, File)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even though winter is still a few months away, how Salt Lake City manages COVID-19 and the effects of the coronavirus took center stage during a city council work session Tuesday afternoon.

That not only includes ensuring a vaccination plan is in place for the day a COVID-19 vaccine is available, but how to handle economic, housing and equity issues, as well. How leaders also plan to handle a “visible increase” of homelessness in the age of a pandemic — especially as the need for shelter use creeps up — led to a lengthy discussion among city leaders at a city council work session Tuesday afternoon. In fact, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said officials will begin resuming homeless camp abatements in the city next week.

The mayor unveiled her COVID-19 winter plan through a 15-minute prepared video. In it, she tackled not just aspects of the coronavirus itself, but also how the pandemic is currently and expected to continue affecting life.

“We focused our planning on five key areas that address the challenges COVID will create for our residents this winter: health, education and childcare, economic support, housing stability and homeless services, and operations and service from the city,” she said in the video.

Highlights of the mayor’s ongoing or future plans include:

  • Ensuring access to testing and personal protective equipment to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks. A part of any additional future CARES Act money would go toward making it easier for businesses to get PPE through grants, which will allow those businesses to continue operating during the pandemic.
  • Creating a vaccination plan for the day a COVID-19 vaccine is made widely available. Mendenhall said the city is already working with health care providers to craft a plan once it is available, which could happen as early as the winter or spring, according to Salt Lake County health officials.
  • An approximately $9 million housing stability package to provide mortgage, rental and rapid rehousing assistance, citing the reality that many individuals or families might be one lost paycheck away from not being able to pay for housing. The first $1.9 million targeted a pair of zip codes within Salt Lake City hardest hit by the coronavirus.
  • Creating a two-phased community commitment program to address homelessness in the city. It starts with a 12-week period cleaning up biowaste and garbage. The second part involves Community Connection Center social workers, service providers, legal defenders and justice court to take care of outstanding warrants the homeless may have and access any needed treatment or temporary housing.
  • Working with Salt Lake County and the Salt Lake County Coalition to End Homelessness to ensure that a plan is in place for emergency homeless shelter access during the winter. The latter of the two organizations is leading the charge for a winter shelter plan, Mendenhall later explained.
  • A proposal to send $200,000 to the Association for Utah Community Health and the 4th Street Clinic, a pair of community clinics, to provide COVID-19 health care to residents who otherwise wouldn’t have it and other essential needs.
  • A proposal for $1.6 million for the city’s youth programs which aim to fill gaps in child care, educational support and social services worsened by COVID-19. This was also addressed by Mendenhall last week after the city expanded internet and computer lab equity opportunities in western parts of the city.
  • Providing language and cultural liaisons to assist new businesses with permits and licensing processes, as well as partner with the Suazo Business Center to improve communication with Spanish-speaking business owners.

Homelessness was the topic Mendenhall and city councilors discussed at length after the video aired during the online teleconference meeting. In addressing the ongoing homeless situation, homeless camp abatements — or sweeps — will resume in Salt Lake City on Sept. 10, according to Mendenhall. Those are conducted by the Salt Lake County Health Department with police assistance.

“We will also be dialing in this new plan for community education around the camp cleanups,” she told council members, adding the city will also address complaints from neighbors and businesses.

Rachel Otto, chief of staff of the mayor’s office, explained that an attempt to begin camp sweeps was halted last week because the notice for the cleanup “was not really sufficient” and that raised concerns among homeless resource advocates.

The pause in restarting abatements gives time for government leaders to offer advanced notice in an effort to avoid confusion and is being done “so they don’t have a fear that we’re going to show up with a bunch of police resources and kick everyone out and take everyone’s stuff.”

Otto said officials are looking to target the larger homeless camps that are becoming more entrenched. She added that the city and county still have “store your stuff” programs where homeless individuals can store their possessions without fear of having them stolen.

Salt Lake County saw a 12% bump in homelessness this January compared to January 2019, but that was before COVID-19. In the video, Mendenhall said there has been a “visible increase” to homelessness in the city.

The mayor also acknowledged that the city is the “nexus of services and opportunities” within Utah’s homeless situation, so it’s the central place those experiencing homelessness go to for help. It should be noted that in addition to Salt Lake City's efforts, the Utah Department of Workforce Services said last month the state was awarded over $14 million in COVID-19 grants to help homeless services.

The focus areas for the 12-week cleanup and sweeps is around the downtown Salt Lake City core, Taufer Park, near St. Mark’s Cathedral, areas near Smith’s Ballpark, and the section of Rose Park centered around North Temple and South Temple, from about I-15 to as far west as Redwood Road.

The second phase, Mendenhall explained, will involve sending experts to homeless campsites and places on the streets to help them take care of any need they have.

“It's a dedicated diversion, really. It’s about ongoing encampment resolution,” she said. “Our team could do this on its own, but it’s going to be so much more impactful to have the partners we’re going to be working with to come on board and bring their suite of services and access.”


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