Robert Gehrke: South Salt Lake’s homeless shelter demands would undermine homeless services

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless resource center in South Salt Lake on Thursday, July 25, 2019.

You’ll have to forgive South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood if she isn’t in a very accommodating mood. After all, her city was on the receiving end of a ham-fisted process that ended up plopping a homeless center in her boundaries.

That was, of course, after backlash from neighbors in Sugar House got one that was planned there, scrapped and relocated to South Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Valley’s perennial stepchild which lacked the political muscle to stop it.

So now the mayor is doing what she can to squeeze out concessions and restrictions, to shape what the shelter will look like and to safeguard her surrounding communities. It is, frankly, what she should be doing and what her constituents should expect.

There comes a point, however, where the demands go too far, where the demands become counterproductive and undermine the mission of alleviating the Utah’s homeless crisis. And that’s the point we’ve reached.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Take, for example, the mayor’s demand that anyone who is intoxicated be prohibited from entering the shelter. Yes, those entering the shelter should be screened, and operators say they will do that.

But it’s hard to imagine that the policy would be to turn away people with nowhere else to go in the dead of winter, or that the area surrounding the shelter benefits from having those people forced out on the streets.

The typical practice is to provide a space away from the general population where those individuals can sober up, then start getting them the help they need.

Or consider the mayor’s insistence that everyone entering the facility have a referral — and that the South Salt Lake shelter not be a site where they can get a referral. Essentially, it would mean no walk-ins and add another layer of red tape for people in critical need.

Other demands seem more reasonable. The city should have assurances it won’t be on the hook for the public safety costs associated with the shelter and the state has allocated money to defray those. The argument from Shelter the Homeless that other businesses in the city don’t have to pay the cost of public safety misses a key point: Those businesses do pay for public safety via their taxes; the shelter will not.

Wood has said the conditions she is demanding are non-negotiable and doesn’t care much if Shelter the Homeless isn’t happy about them. One small problem: She doesn’t have the leverage to impose her conditions and Shelter the Homeless is about to deploy the nuclear option.

The Shelter the Homeless board is proposing a resolution that would take the permitting of the shelter away from city and lease it to the state for $100, cutting South Salt Lake out of the process entirely. That resolution could be formally ratified in September.

If that happens, the same operating terms would apply to the South Salt Lake shelter as at the other two shelters. Any protections Wood was trying to negotiate would disappear.

It would also continue the trend we’ve seen throughout the development of the homeless resource centers — where local concerns expressed by marginalized communities are swept aside and the state simply steamrolls any obstacles in the way, whether they are legitimate or not.

And, of course, it would be the second time South Salt Lake gets stepped on.

Time is running short to get the permits approved. The completion of the South Salt Lake shelter is already behind the other two and has been pushed back from July to October, in part because of South Salt Lake’s stubbornness. Further delays could mean it wouldn’t be open when the snow starts falling.

This needs to be resolved and that means both sides need to be willing to give. For the good of the city, Mayor Wood needs to drop the counterproductive demands that will undermine the mission of the shelter and make a deal.

At the same time, Shelter the Homeless should be willing to work with the state to make sure South Salt Lake doesn’t end up bearing unexpected costs associated with the shelter. And it should back away from using the nuclear option.

The mission is critical. But the state and homeless advocates can’t expect communities and their residents be willing partners in solving the homeless crisis when, time and again, they are having their concerns ignored and decisions rammed down their throats.