Salt Lake City hopes its decision to extend a moratorium on new shelters for people experiencing homelessness will spur other cities to address the issue.
Dan Dugan, chair of the City Council, said he wants the recent vote to temporarily prohibit new shelters in Utah’s capital to lead to a more equitable distribution of resources throughout the city. But he also wants other cities to “step up to the game.”
He sees the council’s decision as sending a message to other municipalities to open their hearts and minds to the necessity of caring for those in need.
“We need to take care of everyone,” he said, “and that includes the most vulnerable.”
Homeless service providers say they understand the city’s motives but worry about what will happen to unsheltered people during the pause.
The council’s move came just as Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s moratorium on new shelters, enacted in October, was set to expire. Council members who were present approved the extension unanimously.
Before the moratorium, homeless resource centers and shelters were allowed only in a limited area of Salt Lake City, largely clustered around downtown. The council voted to take shelters and resource centers out of the potential uses in those zoning areas, leaving the city with no places that permit such facilities.
The city wants to review its approach to homeless services and look at allowing resources to be offered elsewhere in its borders.
Existing shelters and resource centers will not be affected by the moratorium, which automatically lifts in May 2023 if no replacement is approved. The pause does not prevent the city from processing applications for services like permanent supportive housing, detox centers and tiny homes.
Temporary shelters will be barred under the moratorium, but the council has the authority to override zoning ordinances with a temporary land-use resolution, said Andrew Johnston, the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach.
Dugan desires the council to craft a solution that allows resource centers to be spread throughout Salt Lake City — and that the process sets an example for other cities.
Why service providers are worried
The decision to extend a moratorium was met with resistance from service providers and some members of the public, who voiced concerns during last month’s council meeting.
Shawn Clay, co-director of the Salt Lake City Mission, said the city’s moratorium tells unsheltered people that they don’t belong downtown because the area is being developed.
“The message that they’re sending,” Clay said, “is just to push them off over here to where they can’t be seen, to where they can’t be heard, and just turn a blind eye to them.”
But Dugan said the previous process of concentrating the centers in only a limited area put pressure on businesses and neighbors.
“They’re uncomfortable,” he said, “with always having the resource center in their area.”
Chris Croswhite, executive director of Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, agrees that other counties and cities across Utah need to step up in providing services so those without homes don’t need to travel to Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City for help. But he also said unsheltered people prefer to be in an urban area because they can blend in.
Regardless of why people are attracted to the area, downtown Salt Lake City will have a disproportionately high population of unsheltered people, he said, so it needs service providers.
Not knowing where new facilities will be allowed until as late as May 2023 delays the planning and fundraising process for service providers, Croswhite said, and prevents his organization and others from planning to meet the immediate and future needs of unsheltered people.
“It’s just not a 14-month moratorium,” he said. “It could be a 24-month moratorium, a 36-month moratorium before new services are on line in Salt Lake City.”
In the meantime, Croswhite fears the unsheltered population will grow with the city.
Current winter shelter poised to close
Salt Lake City has long taken the largest chunk of offering resources to the unhoused. Dugan said the city spent more than $20 million addressing homelessness last year.
“No one else comes close to that,” he said.
Mendenhall has repeatedly asked for other cities to help unsheltered people. Last year, she offered $1 million in federal pandemic relief funds to support an overflow shelter outside her city.
When no other city volunteered to open a winter shelter, the Salt Lake City Council voted to open the Ramada at 1659 W. North Temple to keep people off the streets for the winter. The motel, which opened in February, is ramping down operations and is expected to close as a temporary shelter by week’s end.
Only two other cities in Salt Lake County — South Salt Lake and Midvale — offer homeless resource centers.
Clay, the co-director of the Salt Lake City Mission, said he understands Salt Lake City’s frustration of taking the financial brunt of addressing homelessness, and the hope that other municipalities will do more to help. But while officials wait for cooperation, he said, the unsheltered are the ones affected.
“What is it going to take to get other places, cities to step up?” Clay asked. “Because there are lives that are hanging in the balance of all of this.”
State law may force cities to cooperate
This year, the Utah Legislature passed HB440, a measure that, in part, requires cities in Salt Lake County to work with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness on developing a plan for opening an overflow shelter before the coldest months strike.
If the cities do not submit a plan by September, the state can take over and preempt land use authority in one of the cities. It also has the authority to expand the capacity limits on existing homeless resource centers by 25%.
Even with a moratorium in place, Salt Lake City could host an overflow shelter next winter. If the state did force Salt Lake City to do so, it could not make the city host one for another three years.
Every Utah city has people who become homeless, but few cities actually respond to the problem, said Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator. Officials from various levels of government should work together because they all have responsibility in responding to homelessness.
“It’s a community issue,” he said, “and it will be solved by a comprehensive community.”
Niederhauser hopes the state doesn’t have to intervene on selecting a site for an overflow shelter and said the first meeting of mayors was positive.
“But I can guarantee you that there are some reservations by cities,” he said, “because it’s politically charged.”
Mendenhall is “enthusiastically engaged” in working with other cities to develop an overflow plan. For now, she said, her city is looking for a better approach to shelter applications.
Salt Lake City, she said, is at the center of providing resources, and it isn’t walking away.
“We are realizing, and attempting to realize through policy,” she said, “the very tangible impacts that centralized homeless resource services have on any given community, and build that into our process for future growth.”