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Local city leaders brace for a homeless shelter they’re powerless to stop

First Published      Last Updated Mar 09 2017 02:38 pm


Homelessness » Bill would provide no out for city that could be chosen to house “a little north of 300” beds.

One Salt Lake County community will soon become home to a shelter that it hadn't counted on a month ago.

It might wind up being the state's largest homeless facility after the planned closure of a shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. It might house the population most associated with violent crime: men. And municipal officials might not have any choice but to roll out the welcome mat.

Majority Whip Francis Gibson's HB441 would allow the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee to trump zoning and other city ordinances when it sites a county shelter March 30.

That's a "clear preemption of generally accepted land-use responsibilities," said Roger Tew, interim director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.




But though the League spoke with Gibson about its concerns, Tew said it maintained a "tactical" silence during a committee presentation of HB441 because "this is clearly a leadership position."

"Sometimes you're faced with certain political inevitabilities," he said.

Gibson's bill, which partially funds a Salt Lake City and County collaboration to build three shelters, has the backing of both House and Senate leadership.

Meanwhile, some county municipal leaders are bracing for a light-speed site selection process that will include public input on finalists but will result in a county recommendation and a state decision about one city's land.

"I'm not going to like it," said Murray Council Chairwoman Diane Turner. "I don't know many cities that will like it, because it takes any governance out of our hands."

West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe said land use should be determined by a municipality and that "to have no say in where it's located or anything about the land use, I think, is problematic."

Public comments from Gibson and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski suggested that the county's facility will shelter single men while the city's two facilities host female and gender-segregated populations widely thought to be less prone to crime and thus more palatable to nearby residents.

Gibson wrote by text message Monday that the city's shelters would be 200 beds and "the facility in the county is envisioned to be larger" — "probably a little north of 300."

He later clarified that shelter size and demographics wouldn't be finalized until the county had chosen and weighed the specific merits of a third site, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said Wednesday that some of the sites under consideration are better suited to other demographics.

Gibson said his provision to cut out city government paved the only realistic path forward, given the remote chance that an official would volunteer their city for a shelter.

It's not an unprecedented move. Last year, as the Legislature contemplated its first round of an eventual $27 million in homeless funding, lawmakers compelled Midvale to keep open year-round a 300-bed family shelter that its council had ordered closed for a portion of each year.

Proponents of leaders' retooled homeless vision — which last month cut the capital city's share from four shelters to two — have repeatedly credited Midvale for "stepping up" or "raising its hand."

But Mayor JoAnn Seghini said the shelter's proximity to a rail yard makes it a "terrible location" and that she hopes its nonprofit owners will eventually sell the building and choose a better location.

That shelter has attracted "a whole bunch of wanderers," she said, and increasing numbers of people seem to be camping by the Jordan River.

Siting a shelter is "an impossible task," she said. "Whatever they do, a whole bunch of somebodies aren't going to like it."

McAdams said the county selection team will evaluate sites based on criteria like transportation, proximity to grocers, on-site parking, space for service providers and nearby availability of employment, job training and medical services.

In contrast to Salt Lake City leadership, which pared its list of sites behind closed doors, McAdams has said he will unveil about five sites within the next few days. The county will then hold at least three public input sessions at the Capitol before making its recommendation to the state committee.

McAdams said it's possible that a proposed site will abut a neighborhood, like the since-withdrawn city site at 653 E. Simpson that led to uproar from nearby Salt Lake City residents and business owners, though that neighborhood would be unlikely to consist of single-family homes.

South Salt Lake City Councilman Shane Siwik was among those opposed to the Simpson Ave. site — just two blocks away from his city's limits.

Even though there's a "crisis" around the downtown shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St., Siwik said, he won't support a solution that involves a shelter in a residential area.

"If this is going to happen, it needs to happen somewhere in an industrial area that can still be close to the amenities," said Siwik, who surmised that South Salt Lake's bevy of regional services will make it attractive to selectors.

Murray City Councilman Dave Nicponski said the shelter won't be sited in Murray but declined to comment on the origin of that knowledge. McAdams said the county hasn't excluded anything in its broad search.

West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow wrote in a statement that affordable housing is the solution to homelessness and that his city "has provided real solutions to homelessness in Salt Lake County for decades."

"This type of decision has generational impacts on a community," he said. "If a potential location is identified in West Valley City, we will make sure our voices are heard."

That's just as well, said Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who said she guesses that some of the five sites will be from her district — which includes Murray, Taylorsville, West Valley and West Jordan — and that there will be no shortage of commentary.

"As a county, we've always valued public input and we don't shy away from people who come with pitchforks or have strong opinions on issues," she said. "We really appreciate that."

McAdams said that input leads to valuable information, but he won't let the voices drown out reason. Whichever site the county chooses to recommend, he said, there will be opposition.

"We're going to make every decision through the lens of what's going to help us best achieve our goals of minimizing homelessness," he said.

Asked if any of the city officials who have reached out to his office have suggested a shelter within their boundaries, McAdams said they hadn't.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

 

AT A GLANCE

Public feedback schedule

Salt Lake County has scheduled the following three opportunities for the public to give feedback on possible shelter sites. On Tuesday, March 28, its Site Evaluation Committee is slated to deliberate from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the state Capitol (350 State St.) in Senate Room 210. Its recommendation to the State Homeless Coordinating Committee is due March 30.

Tuesday, March 14 » From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., an open house will be held at the state Capitol (350 State St.) in the Senate Building cafeteria

Saturday, March 18 » From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., an open house will be held at the state Capitol (350 State St.) in the Senate Building cafeteria

Wednesday, March 22 » From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Site Evaluation Committee will meet and invite public comment at the state Capitol (350 State St.) in Senate Room 210.


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