Salt Lake City mayor lauds Millcreek homeless shelter as ‘a historic plan’

Temporary facility at a former county library would keep unhoused Utahns from freezing on the streets, but the plan is already drawing blowback from neighbors.

Millcreek will likely open a temporary homeless shelter this winter to keep unhoused Utahns from sleeping on the frigid streets.

Officials plan to turn the vacant Calvin S. Smith Library, 810 E. 3300 South, into an overflow shelter that would serve about 100 unsheltered guests on an emergency basis from October through April.

“It’s a moral imperative that we not let people be unsheltered in the depths of winter, where they could become ill or freeze to death,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said. “I can’t stand by and see that happen and not want to do something about that.”

Opponents, however, may be just as determined to keep the shelter out.

Jamie Walker, chair of the Millcreek Community Council, said a conflict is brewing as neighbors begin to hear about the proposal.

“They’ve already started lighting up the torches,” Walker said, “and they got their pitchforks out.”

Although he doesn’t entirely oppose the plan, Walker said city officials could have been more transparent about the process.

“Millcreek City and their leadership has good intentions,” he said, “but I think it would have gone a lot farther if they’d had a town hall meeting two months ago or three months ago, saying, ‘Here’s four locations we’re considering. What do you guys think?’”

How the site was selected

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Calvin S. Smith Library at 810 E. 3300 South is being prepared on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, to house unsheltered Utahns this winter.

The location is the result of a monthslong, state-mandated conversation among government leaders in Salt Lake County about where to put an overflow shelter before the coldest months strike.

Although an official plan has not been finalized by the state, the former county library is expected to be one of the options open to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness this winter.

A state law passed this year nudged communities in the Salt Lake Valley to come up with a plan for the winter by Sept. 1 so the region could avoid a last-minute scramble to protect unhoused Utahns.

Each city proposed at least one location for a shelter. Most suggestions were not viable options, either because the property owner was unwilling to host a homeless shelter or because the proposed site was too far from resources.

“What we ended up with at the end of the day, really,” Silvestrini said, “was that the Calvin Smith Library was the only choice.”

The mayor said the building was chosen because it is available, situated on a street with dependable transit service and near resources. (Most of the people who stay in Millcreek at night, Silvestrini said, would travel between service providers and the shelter by dedicated buses.)

According to a city memo provided by Silvestrini, the shelter would be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“No meals will be served at the shelter,” the memo states, “and clients will be bused to the shelter every evening and back downtown every morning.”

Silvestrini said Millcreek mainly would host unsheltered people who have shown “some degree of success” in receiving treatment.

‘We can do this’

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, shown in 2017, says his city is prepared to host a wintertime homeless shelter.

Silvestrini pledged the city would do whatever it could to reduce the impact of the shelter while doing the humane thing by providing people a place to stay in the chilly months.

Millcreek will receive funds from the state to offset the effects of a new shelter, and Silvestrini said he wants to use that money to hire new officers to patrol around the former library.

The mayor said he had the authority to veto the decision to open a facility in his city, but he decided against it because he recognized that the need to house the unsheltered should not fall only on Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Midvale.

“It’s a statewide problem,” he said, “and we need more communities to step up and help.”

He embraced the plan, pointing to the success of a similar facility the city had in 2020, which he said garnered only one police call while it was open.

“We know we can do this,” he said.

Silvestrini said the shelter would help people from across the state, including from Millcreek. And as a city of 64,000 residents, he said, Millcreek has an obligation to be part of the solution and not just contribute to the problem.

“I know that nobody likes the idea of hosting a facility like this,” Silvestrini said, “but nobody also likes seeing people camping in their yards or in public spaces in our city. And this is a way to address that as well.”

Millcreek plans to stage a neighborhood meeting at the former library to discuss the shelter plan Sept. 15 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

More collaboration than past years

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall praised the idea, calling the process “a massive shift in posture and collaboration” from area governments.

“It’s a historic plan,” she said, “not necessarily because of the size of the location, but that cities around this county said outright South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City have done their part with winter shelters and that they’d collectively work to find a location that was not in one of our two cities.”

Mendenhall said she was grateful to know the region would not face delays in sheltering unhoused residents this winter.

Last November, Salt Lake City rallied and approved an eleventh-hour plan to convert a motel into an overflow shelter.

The Millcreek site’s capacity, however, falls well below the 400-bed goal officials had in creating an overflow space.

To make up the 300-bed shortfall, the state wants to boost capacity of existing homeless resource centers by a total of 175 beds, according to Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator.

Niederhauser said the state could make an additional 150 beds available in the resource centers by transitioning older, disabled or medically vulnerable residents into longer-term housing.

“We’re a lot further ahead than we were last year and the year before,” he said. “And with (increasing resource center capacity), we won’t be delayed to January.”