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SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of Utah's capital city are not happy that the city has again been selected to house an emergency winter shelter.
The Salt Lake City Council, during a meeting Tuesday, somewhat reluctantly approved the Ramada Inn located at 1659 W. North Temple as the site of a 250-bed temporary overflow this winter. Officials with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness said the temporary facility will be a "safe, 24-hour, non-congregate setting" that will ensure homeless individuals can get out of the cold conditions this winter.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall explained that the county coalition selected the site and asked Salt Lake City to approve the use of an emergency shelter.
While they acknowledged the need for the shelter, what irked the mayor and several of the city council members is that the city has been tapped by the state all three years that an emergency shelter has been needed following the decision to shut down The Road Home.
"I am frustrated with the disproportionate and largely unsupported efforts Salt Lake City brings to the statewide homelessness crisis," Mendenhall said, moments before the council's vote Tuesday. "My frustration seems matched by the city council's, where the discussion today reflected a waning willingness to continuously host the vast majority of services in this county without the financial support that should accompany that service."
The shelter this winter will be the second-straight shelter to end up on the city's west side, an area Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros called an "already stressed part of town." She said police and firefighters have requested more staff and additional overtime, as well as apologized for not being able to respond to every call.
Valdemoros argued that a recent report stating that a homeless shelter wasn't feasible in other Utah cities and unincorporated areas in the county is an example that Salt Lake City has been pushed "into a corner" and shamed if it doesn't open an emergency shelter.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler, who was sworn in last week and represents the area in which the shelter will be located, agreed. She added she's worried about issues that may arise for the residents and small businesses near the emergency shelter.
"To ask the city to shoulder this burden once is an emergency. To have been asked now several times, with the west side targeted significantly, is a pattern," Petro-Eschler said. "This pattern should disqualify this type of ask on an emergency basis. Instead, it's a seasonal request."
The additional resources needed for the shelter are why Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano said he believes the state should help cover the city's costs.
There were also concerns with the property slated for the shelter brought up during the meeting. Nigel Swaby, the chairman of the Fairpark Community Council, said he toured the site earlier in the day and said it was "in bad condition." He said he saw fixtures and flooring stripped from some of the rooms; some had toilets on top of beds.
"It'll cost far more money and take more time to bring this building back to code than the time needed to supply housing in this year's overflow," he said.
Alejandro Puy, who was confirmed as the winner of the Salt Lake City Council District 2 race earlier Tuesday, said he also toured the "very concerning location."
"This motel is run down, and I'm very concerned," Puy said. "I don't know who is going to pay for repairing and getting the place up to code but it's very, very concerning — the state of it."
Ultimately, I don't think we, as a group of electeds, can have people potentially freezing to death on the streets of our city.
–Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton
While city leaders and residents weren't happy with the position they were put in, they also know time is ticking. Temperatures in Salt Lake City fell below the freezing point overnight; the National Weather Service noted its the coldest temperatures recorded in the city since late March. It's a reminder that winter is just around the corner.
At the same time, the existing permanent shelters across Salt Lake County are already filling up. Andrew Johnston, the city's director of Homeless Policy and Outreach, told the council during a work session earlier Tuesday that use of homeless shelters is "pretty high," at 97% full across the board.
Mendenhall recently issued a six-month pause on the creation of any new permanent shelters in the city, explaining again Tuesday that the city "hosts far more than its fair share of homeless services" in the state. However, she added she "intentionally" allowed an avenue open for temporary overflow facilities because she believes residents would rather have a temporary shelter in their city than see homeless individuals have "nowhere to go, freezing on our streets."
That sentiment is what persuaded five of the seven city councilors to vote in favor of the shelter. Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton said the vote was "difficult." On one hand, the city will be tasked with an extra burden that could worsen issues within its west side; on the other hand, it may end up a "life or death" situation for many homeless individuals if the state doesn't have an emergency winter shelter.
"Ultimately, I don't think we, as a group of electeds, can have people potentially freezing to death on the streets of our city," Wharton said. "It is a national epidemic, but ... Salt Lake City steps up and does this every year because our residents value and understand that this is a crisis that we have to at least do our part and try and protect."
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness said the new space will have "on-site 24/7 security, shuttles to transport clients, meals and connections to other services." It says there will be 300 available overflow beds available through April 2022.
That figure includes motel vouchers in other cities and mats at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center.
"We know there are many stakeholders involved in developing these solutions and we are committed to being good partners to ensure we provide consistent care for individuals experiencing homelessness in collaboration with the surrounding community," the coalition wrote in a statement. "We know the neighborhoods in the vicinity have faced many pressures over the years and we look forward to working with the community as we serve our most vulnerable residents this winter."
Meanwhile, Mendenhall asserts that more needs to be done in the future so that Salt Lake City isn't forced to cover the costs of emergency shelters alone. She said homeless shelter beds need to be distributed among other cities in the county, and Salt Lake City needs to get "adequate" state funding for public safety costs associated with taking on the shelter, which otherwise fall on the city taxpayers.
While frustrated by the process, the mayor said she still applauds the city council's vote given the circumstances.
"This action will save lives," she said. "But I know that we all agree that residents and businesses in Salt Lake City deserve a more balanced path forward."