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SALT LAKE CITY — When the Road Home's downtown shelter officially closed its doors in November 2019, officials assured the public that a new dispersed model was enough to keep people experiencing homelessness out of the cold.
That assurance included a reiteration that the three new resource centers — South Salt Lake Men's Resource Center, the Gail Miller Resource Center and the Geraldine E. King Resource Center — would have enough beds. Additionally, overflow options would be provided at St. Vincent De Paul and the Weigand Center.
"We will make sure we will have a place to get everyone out of the cold," Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services, said at the time.
Yet temporary winter overflow shelter has increasingly become a problem over the years, with providers and city leaders scrambling to find enough beds before the first snowfall. The dispersed model was meant to help alleviate the burden and disperse responsibility among cities throughout Salt Lake County.
But many argue that the burden remains disproportionate and is growing. Among those is Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council who have continually voiced frustration about the city bearing more responsibility. Salt Lake City has been tapped by the state all three years that an emergency shelter has been needed since the closure of the Road Home.
"I am frustrated with the disproportionate and largely unsupported efforts Salt Lake City brings to the statewide homelessness crisis," Mendenhall said ahead of the council's vote this winter on the temporary overflow. "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."
Despite frustrations, the council voted to approve the remodeled Ramada Inn for temporary overflow. But the Ramada didn't open for full overflow until mid-February. The delayed opening of temporary winter overflow shelters and the failure to supply all the beds needed for overflow are partly what prompted HB440.
"During this past winter, we had encountered situations that we had not encountered before in the state, where our first traditional winter overflow shelter opened just approximately two weeks ago, long after snow began to fall," bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, told the House Tuesday.
The bill would create a "Plan A," allowing cities to come together and submit a plan for summer and winter overflow to the Office of Homeless Services. Failure to submit a plan, or if a plan is insufficient, the state would then have the ability to flex capacity at existing resource centers and use state-owned facilities for overflow.
"The crux of this issue is focused on making sure that we as a community — as a state — have sufficient overflow," Eliason said Friday during a Health and Human Services Committee meeting. "I'm not here to talk about the causes of homelessness — everything from housing prices, to economic issues, to mental health and substance use issues. They're all still real and unfortunately, some of them have been exacerbated in recent years."
Utah's homeless coordinator and former state senator Wayne Niederhauser told the committee that the state was working on addressing many of those issues. To fully address the overflow, issue the collaboration of local government, is vital, he added.
"We want the local authorities to make that decision along with the coalition," Niederhauser said.
So far the bill has prompted those discussions among city leaders, and the mayors of Salt Lake County all met last week to discuss the impact of shelters in cities.
"It was a conversation that we've needed to have ... and quite honestly, this bill forced us to have that conversation but we needed to have it," South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey told the committee. "There was full support to do what we could as the other communities to step up and help and try to ease some of the burden on the (Homeless Resource Center) cities."
But ultimately, Ramsey opposed the bill — as did many city officials. Mendenhall argued that the bill "upended" the system dispersing shelters throughout the county. It also provided no incentive or "lever" for other cities to come up with a plan, she added.
"Please don't undo what took a long time and millions of dollars of effort," she asked the committee. "We all agree there must be a better solution and there needs to be more shelter. But upending what we just fixed is not the way to do it. Please give the cities a chance to solve this and give the three cities who are hosting the homeless resource centers the relief that we need."
The sentiment was carried from the committee to the House on Tuesday, when Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, attempted to add an exemption for cities that have sheltered locations in their municipalities, that spend more than $5 million annually on homelessness mitigation or have 2,000 housing units for low-income individuals.
Eliason argued the amendment illustrates the need for the bill and voiced his opposition.
"For the past several years, particularly, cities have been saying, 'Not my backyard,' and every city has a good reason why," he said.
Other representatives chimed in, echoing Eliason's sentiment.
"We've all got to take ownership of this problem," Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, said.
The bill would require an ongoing appropriation of $5 million from the state's general fund for cities with large homeless populations, for mitigation use. Additionally, $5.8 million would be used from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay off debt created in the dispersed shelter model.
While many city officials and representatives applauded the money, advocate Stefanie Amodt said the desire to accept the money, but not the burden, is demonstrative.
"I understand all the cities' concerns about having the resource centers in their cities and taking on that burden. I would invite them to come help me move people, help the outreach people take the burden," Amodt said. "When they don't have transportation and they rely on us and we're very thinly spread, that puts the burden on us. They can't go to other cities."
Amodt spoke to the committee, along with Stacy Johnson, a homeless woman she serves.
"I can't focus on my health because on a daily basis, I have to focus on if we are going to rest, if we're going to eat. I have frostbite on my toes from being so cold. I feel guilty for relying so heavily on our outreach workers, they are exhausted," Johnson tearfully told the committee. "If I could help myself I definitely would."
The bill passed the House on a 53-21 vote. It has gone to the Senate for further consideration and only a few days left in the general session.