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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Thursday withdrew her support for a new homeless shelter proposed in the Ballpark neighborhood of the city that residents, business owners and state representatives say caught them off guard.
Residents expressed their frustrations with the process in a heated, two-hour town hall meeting hosted Thursday evening over Zoom by two neighborhood councils, hours after the mayor announced she was withdrawing her support for that shelter location.
Mendenhall said she would like to see more homeless resource centers distributed throughout Salt Lake County before supporting another shelter in the city.
"Salt Lake City has contributed considerably more than its fair share to addressing the statewide homelessness crisis," Mendenhall said Thursday in a news release. "However, it is clear that the state needs more emergency shelter beds."
The overflow emergency shelter is proposed for a facility that is currently owned by Volunteers of America Utah at 252 W. Brooklyn Avenue. The executive appropriations committee of the Utah State Legislature meets on Sept. 14 and is expected to discuss funding for the shelter.
Mendenhall said she sent a letter to the state's homeless coordinating committee on Tuesday to withdraw her support for the plan. When Mendenhall heard that state funds would possibly go toward a shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood, she initially supported the plan, she said. But when she learned that there was a possibility that the state could locate more shelter beds at a different Salt Lake City location, she withdrew her support.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition To End Homelessness said last month that at least 300 more beds are needed to make sure unsheltered people have a place to stay at night — an assessment Mendenhall supported, the release said. She also requested that the state support the coalition in getting those beds available as quickly as possible before winter, and that they be located in other cities within the county in addition to Salt Lake City.
But Salt Lake City already supports 853 beds for unsheltered people, and adding the Brooklyn Avenue building as well as a share of the 300 more beds "would further widen the imbalance of Salt Lake City's capacity," Mendenhall said.
"Salt Lake City represents only 17% of the population of Salt Lake County, but expansion of bed capacity in the countywide homeless services system seems to be predominantly focused here," she said. "New emergency shelter beds must also come online in jurisdictions throughout the county to better balance the system."
I oppose putting a new homeless service facility in the Ballpark neighborhood, and earlier this week I withdrew my support for using state funds to pay for it. The County needs more beds to meet the needs of our unsheltered population 1/2 pic.twitter.com/K4fbIQBVQV— Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) September 9, 2021
City officials have asked for support from Salt Lake County and the state for public safety resources, mental health services and centers that are more equally distributed throughout the state, the mayor said.
"It is simply untenable to ask this city to support two more emergency shelters on top of the 853 beds we already support, let alone to ask the Ballpark community to shoulder another homeless services facility with zero guaranteed support dollars from the state," she said.
Amy J. Hawkins, a member of the Ballpark Community Council, supported the mayor's decision.
"I'm so glad @slcmayor (Mendenhall) has changed her position and no longer supports siting an additional homeless shelter in Ballpark," Hawkins said on Twitter. "Salt Lake City and the Ballpark neighborhood have contributed considerably more than their fair share to addressing the Statewide homelessness crisis."
Several on social media criticized the mayor's decision to withdraw support for the shelter, however.
"A number of our organizers live in and around Ballpark. If you count the dozens of car campers, the homeless camps along west temple, 300 West, and around Ballpark Trax, there are at least 150 homeless Ballpark community members this shelter could have helped. Shame," Wasatch Tenants United, a renter organization and advocacy group, tweeted.
Open Air Shelter Coalition SLC, a homeless advocacy organization, also blasted Mendenhall's decision.
"Yet again showing us that despite the platform you ran on, unhoused people are your last priority," the group tweeted.
Shelter plan surprised central city residents
The lack of community engagement on the project thus far has left residents in Ballpark and Central Ninth feeling surprised and betrayed, said Paul Johnson, a member of the Central Ninth Community Council.
Most residents found out about the plan for the shelter just two weeks ago when the Salt Lake Tribune published a news story about the proposal. And they were told there would be a turnaround of less than a month before state legislators would decide on whether or not to fund it.
"I think my head almost exploded that night," Johnson said, referring to the night he found out about the proposal. "I've never felt more frustrated."
Johnson and other residents of the two neighborhoods weighed in on the shelter plans in a heated, two-hour town hall meeting Thursday evening hosted over Zoom by the two neighborhood councils. Nearly all of the state representatives, city officials, business owners, developers and residents of the neighborhoods who spoke at the meeting said they did not support the shelter plans.
For state Rep. Joel Briscoe, the situation in the Ballpark neighborhood feels similar to what happened in Sugar House in December 2016.
In that situation, city officials under former Mayor Jackie Biskupski kept locations proposed for new homeless resource centers secret until late in the process. When a location in Sugar House was finally made public, nearby residents were outraged after they were told the location was final and there was nothing they could do.
The city ultimately rescinded the plan for the Sugar House resource center.
Briscoe said he loves that Salt Lake City takes care of its unsheltered neighbors. But what he doesn't like is seeing other cities along the Wasatch Front pass anti-camping laws, and then tell people who violate such laws that they won't have to pay the ticket if they just pack up and move to Salt Lake City instead.
He said that other areas need to pick up the slack and care for unsheltered people instead of leaving Salt Lake City neighborhoods like Ballpark to pick up more than their fair share.
"No one area of any city should have two of these," Briscoe said. "One is plenty."
Even though Mendenhall withdrew her support for the plan, Briscoe said she should fight harder.
"I want to see her get angry," he said.
Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City's director of homeless policy and outreach, said Mendenhall has heard what the neighborhood residents have said. He added that he's been working to find other locations for homeless shelters within Salt Lake City and outside the city, and it's "incredibly challenging."
Johnston lamented the lack of community engagement on the issue.
"I don't think we can ever do enough outreach on these things, and clearly that didn't happen here," he said.
Hawkins added that an affordable housing development is in the works for Brooklyn Avenue, which would bring 238 affordable units directly across the street from the proposed shelter location. Residents worry that locating a shelter there might throw a wrench in the development plans, she said.
Recently, there has been an increase in crime around Jefferson Park in the neighborhood, according to Salt Lake police detective Nate Meinzer.
Cameron Smith, a business owner in Central Ninth, said there has been lots of development work done in the neighborhood to bring businesses in and start rehabilitating the area.
"You're trying to develop this area and yet you're trying to tear it down at the same time," Smith said.
Johnson added that the Ballpark and Central Ninth neighborhoods haven't been as loud as residents in Sugar House or the Avenues have been in the past on similar issues. The central city neighborhoods are more working class, and might not have as many resources as those more affluent areas of the city, he said. But he hopes that residents of those areas will support Ballpark and Central Ninth.
"We're on their side. We want our city to succeed," Johnson said. "We still need to work on how we address homelessness in our communities."