Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced her support Thursday for additional emergency shelter beds for the countywide homeless services system, as many homeless resource centers in the city have been operating at or near capacity.
According to a news release from the mayor’s office, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is calling for 300 new beds by December. Mendenhall asked the state to support the coalition in “funding the acquisition and staffing” for the beds, and is moving forward with several initiatives to combat homelessness in the city.
Salt Lake City provides bulk of the homeless services in the county
Although Salt Lake City residents are only 17% of Salt Lake County, Mendenhall said the city provides more than $15 million to “support direct services to the unsheltered.” Of 1,500 emergency beds available in the county as a whole last winter, 853 were located in Salt Lake City.
For the past 10 months, Mendenhall said, the city has mobilized an “exhaustive effort” with more than a dozen organizations to bring services and housing to unsheltered people.
“Despite these efforts, the homeless services system remains unable to ensure that any person who needs it has a safe, sheltered space to sleep at night and access to the services they need to help them get back on their feet,” Mendenhall said. “This reality isn’t acceptable.”
Now, the appointment of former Salt Lake City Council member Andrew Johnston as the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach, the appointment of former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser as the state’s homeless services coordinator, and President Joe Biden’s signing of the American Rescue Plan have brought together the resources necessary for “a big change,” according to Mendenhall.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness says part of that big change needs to be at least 300 additional emergency shelter beds.
“The city agrees with [the coalition’s] conclusion,” Mendenhall said. “And I’m here today to ask that the state support the coalition and its partners to do whatever it takes to get those beds on line quickly before winter, and that the beds be located not only in Salt Lake City, but also in other parts of Salt Lake County.”
The city’s homeless resource centers have been operating at or near capacity due to the pandemic forcing individuals out of their homes, neighboring cities enforcing zero-tolerance policies for the unsheltered and the nexus of services located for homeless individuals in Salt Lake City.
Mendenhall said the city is committed to treating all of its people with respect. She says the city is also committed to maintaining safe, accessible public spaces, and will use law enforcement intervention “when criminal activity needs to be addressed.”
“Too many people literally have nowhere to go,” Mendenhall said. “The growth of the unsheltered population living on Salt Lake City streets has been accompanied by a larger and larger encampment situation in public spaces, and, unfortunately, criminal activity in and around those encampments. This can’t be tolerated either.
“Every resident of the city deserves to feel safe here, whether they are sheltered or not. People shouldn’t be afraid to bring their kids down to Liberty Park, or walk to a store or restaurant in downtown… Over the past year, we have radically transformed the former status quo by meeting people where they’re at out on the street. But it still hasn’t been enough. We must do more.”
Extra beds are essential to cleanup plans
Mendenhall launched the Community Commitment program last fall. It aimed to bring resources directly to unsheltered people. The program has shown that there are specific areas within the city that are vulnerable to entrenched encampment, along with the criminal activity that can occur in and around them.
Although over 160 individuals have been connected to shelter or substance abuse treatment due to these efforts, the “overwhelming majority” of those who are approached deny the city’s assistance, Mendenhall said. The city plans to make more personalized approaches to unhoused individuals, but the first step is to get the option of sheltering available.
Without the 300 emergency beds, Mendenhall said Salt Lake City cannot consistently enforce its no-camping ordinance, and will “continue to struggle more directly with criminals attempting to exploit and prey upon homeless encampments.” Unless the city has more beds, she says, the city will also be unable to meet its goal of ensuring public spaces remain safe and accessible to everyone.
“It has been illegal to camp in Salt Lake City in one form or another since 1965,” Mendenhall said. “And the City Council updated and affirmed this ordinance recently in 2012, but without guaranteed shelter space, it is legally and morally difficult to have sustained citywide enforcement of this ordinance unless other criminal activities also occur.
“It cannot and will not be against the law to be homeless in Salt Lake City,” she said. “That will not change for as long as I am here. But the way in which some people are camping in our public spaces is against the law, and in some cases affecting public safety directly.”
Due to these safety concerns, Mendenhall said the ability to enforce the city’s camping ordinance must change. Last week, Salt Lake City began “prioritized, ongoing camp enforcement” targeted around vulnerable areas and populations. Outreach efforts to camps will continue, and individuals will be given the chance to vacate these areas voluntarily but will be cited if they refuse to comply with the law.
Mendenhall said the city will also ask for the state to increase the mitigation fund for communities that host homeless centers in order to support these new law enforcement efforts. It will also ask for the state to provide funding to the Downtown Ambassador program, a “community-based public safety resource that assists businesses, residents, visitors, workers, and refers people experiencing homelessness to qualified service providers.”
Having shelter space to bring people off the streets is “just the middle part of the work that has to be done.” Enforcement and shelter are not the only needed solutions, Mendenhall said, so the city’s long-term goal is to “provide everyone the opportunity for permanent housing, for supportive services that are needed to change people’s health and housing, and a community that embraces them as equals.”
To meet this ultimate goal, Mendenhall will propose to the Salt Lake City Council to use funds from Biden’s American Rescue Plan for investing in more permanent supportive housing options in the city.
“This kind of housing is transformative,” Mendenhall said. “Residents of these buildings live immersed in services and community and in training to help them in their transition out of chronic homelessness, or emergency shelter.
“Utah’s homelessness crisis is deeply rooted in the lack of affordable housing, inadequate access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, low wages that haven’t kept pace with housing prices and multigenerational poverty, among other far-reaching and systemic issues. But without access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as deeply affordable and permanent supportive housing, we will be right back here next year.”
Mendenhall said as the state’s population grows, so does the proportion of individuals experiencing homelessness. The city has “great hope” for the services that will be provided from the crisis care center at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, but there is an immediate need to bridge the gap before the center opens in 2023.