Detox center in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood may become an overflow homeless shelter

Lawmakers will review a $3 million funding plan approved by the Utah Homelessness Council.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Homeless seek shelter under the freeway after being moved from the Rio Grande area, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. A new plan calls for creating an additional overflow homeless shelter before next winter, at a site in Salt Lake City's Ballpark neighborhood.

State officials are looking to set aside $3 million for a plan to purchase a Salt Lake City detoxification center and convert it into an emergency overflow and day shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness.

The Ballpark neighborhood building at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave. — currently owned by Volunteers of America Utah — could furnish an additional 80 to 100 overflow beds by the fall and winter of 2022, according to the Utah Office of Homeless Services.

The Utah Homelessness Council approved funding for the proposal during a Wednesday afternoon meeting, but the spending will also need the endorsement of a legislative appropriations committee, which is expected to review it next month. The money is coming from the state’s roughly $6 million sale of the former Road Home emergency shelter site.

Officials hope this overflow space will help ease the capacity crunch in the Salt Lake Valley’s three homeless resource centers. They’ve been relying on Band-Aid solutions for additional shelter since the closure of the old downtown Road Home shelter, which had space for 400 more people than fit in the three new resource centers that replaced it.

And officials on Wednesday stressed the importance of finding a more permanent solution to keep people off the street during the bitterly cold winter months.

“As we’re talking about overflow, we really are talking about a solution to keep people alive in the winter,” Tricia Davis, assistant director of the Office of Homeless Services, said during the meeting.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s new homeless services coordinator, has previously argued that the underlying problem is a housing shortage that is leaving people stuck at the resource centers. Moving these individuals more quickly from emergency shelter to housing would likely relieve much of the strain on the resource centers, he has said.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness agrees that deeply affordable housing is “the greatest need for our community,” according to a letter by Rob Wesemann, who co-chairs the group.

“At the same time, we recognize the immediate need for flexible overflow beds as housing projects are being developed,” he continued.

The coalition has identified the need for at least 300 more overflow beds to meet existing needs in the Salt Lake Valley area — and the detoxification facility could provide up to a third of them, according to Wesemann.

Under the new plan, the Shelter the Homeless nonprofit would buy the Brooklyn Avenue property, and Volunteers of America would move its detoxification services to a larger facility in 2022, he wrote.

Niederhauser, who spoke in support of the plan during Wednesday’s meeting, said the building will need some remodeling before it can open as an overflow shelter.

Tiffanie Price, a member of the state homelessness council and founder of Axiom Properties, said she’s worried about increased encampments in the area of the proposed overflow shelter.

While the existing detoxification center has little impact on the surrounding community, she said, “putting the overflow shelter [there] is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure in that neighborhood on a very tiny parcel.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who also sits on the council, responded that expanding the Downtown Ambassador Program — which tries to improve public safety without increasing law enforcement — could assist in responding to community complaints about campers around the shelter. Among other things, the “ambassadors” help people experiencing homelessness get access to shelter and other services.

Over the last couple of winters, city leaders in Salt Lake County been using stopgap measures to make sure people aren’t stuck outside in wintertime because of bed shortages at the resource centers. Last year, Salt Lake City opened a temporary overflow shelter in the Airport Inn Hotel, while Millcreek designated a former memory care facility as another temporary shelter.

Officials and providerx have also relied on hotel and motel vouchers to fill the gap between the available beds and the demand.