Utah’s plan for the unhoused during the NBA All-Star Game: dinner and a show at homeless shelters

Watch parties are part of a state-funded plan to bolster homeless resources when the national spotlight turns to Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People camping along 500 West pack up their belongings before Salt Lake City's Rapid Intervention Team moves in to clean the area, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

The region’s unsheltered population will have access to festive snacks and a special dinner next Sunday when the NBA All-Star Game takes over Utah’s capital.

That’s thanks to a nearly $40,000 plan to bolster homeless resources while tens of thousands of visitors descend on Salt Lake City.

Unhoused Utahns are excited for the game, state officials say, and the watch parties will give them a chance to view the action at homeless shelters.

“They’re as interested as anybody else,” said Tricia Davis, assistant director of the state Office of Homeless Services.

The watch parties are only a piece of the homeless response plan for All-Star weekend, slated for Feb. 17-19. The state intends to spend at least $37,000 on a variety of resources, including a temporary shelter that will be able to serve up to 90 people, adding transportation services and boosting staffing at existing shelters.

“For the safety of all people, including our friends that are experiencing homelessness, we wanted to provide … places where they can go to be warm, to sleep, because of the increased number of people that will be in Salt Lake City,” Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s homelessness coordinator, said. “And this is for the safety of them, as well as those who are coming.”

The plan is the result of months of meetings among the state, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and service providers.

Niederhauser insists the extra effort is not intended to keep unsheltered Utahns out of the public eye while Salt Lake City is in the national spotlight.

“In our discussions with the county and the city and the coalition, our objective,” he said, “is this is kind of an intense time, and if we can have a little bit better response during this time, it will be very helpful for those experiencing homelessness also.”

Niederhauser said unhoused Utahns face the risk of more confrontations, which can create additional challenges for them if police get involved.

“This would be more helpful to them to get into a day program,” Niederhauser said, “[and] have an additional place to go at night if that’s what they want to do.”

Where will the money go?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unhoused residents camping along 500 West pack up their belongings before Salt Lake City's Rapid Intervention Team moves in to clean the site, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

Funding will come from reallocating existing contracts and dipping into the last chunk of money from the sale of the Rio Grande property. The Utah Homelessness Council voted Thursday to let the state use that roughly $415,000 for winter overflow expenses that may arise.

Spending amounts for All-Star weekend are expected to be finalized Friday.

Most of that money — nearly $26,000 — will go toward enticing employees of service providers to fill shifts during the weekend.

More than $4,000 would be dedicated to hosting a temporary shelter from noon Sunday to 10 a.m. Monday at the Central City Recreation Center, 615 S. 300 East. The center, which was used last month as an emergency shelter during a cold snap, will be able to house 90 people on game day.

Niederhauser expects the temporary shelter to bring the overall response price tag closer to $40,000.

Nearly $7,000 will go toward meals and snacks for the watch parties at the homeless resource centers during the Feb. 19 game. Davis said watch parties for major events, like the Super Bowl, aren’t new for the shelters.

Food and drinks will be available at the Gail Miller Resource Center, Geraldine E. King Resource Center and Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City, and the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake.

Watch parties also will be available at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center daytime shelter.

A watch party at the Gallivan Center will be open to all.

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, said the plan appears to be coming a little late, but he’s not going to complain about unsheltered residents having another warm place to go or access to a nice meal.

“It’s great that they want to have a party for the people at the resource centers,” he said. “They don’t get a lot of that, so I’m not going to complain about that.”

A question of political will or a lack of demand?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unhoused residents camping along 500 West pack up their belongings before Salt Lake City's Rapid Intervention Team moves in to clean the site, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

Tibbitts said opening a temporary overflow shelter next weekend underscores the area’s need for more beds all winter.

“It’s definitely unfortunate because there’s more political will to have a completely adequate overflow shelter system in place when there’s a major media event,” he said, “than there is at other times.”

Niederhauser said additional resources could be available all the time, but the need simply hasn’t existed. The funding approved Thursday by the Utah Homelessness Council, he said, will give leaders the flexibility to ramp up resources if demand increases.

Davis, the assistant director of the Office of Homeless Services, said making additional resources available doesn’t come down to funding alone. Service providers already face staffing struggles, she said, so it’s difficult for them to provide additional services for a sustained period.

“So the response has been to respond when really specific things arise,” Davis said, “because of capacity of our service providers.”

No plans for extra cleanups

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Campers drag their belongings across the stree on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

Just because additional resources are going to be available next weekend, Niederhauser said, Utahns experiencing homelessness won’t be forced to use them.

“As far as the state is concerned, and our involvement in this,” he said, “you have your freedom, you make your choices, and if there’s a local issue with that, then that’s up to the local government.”

Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homeless policy and outreach, said the city has no plans to amp up enforcement and compel unsheltered residents to attend the watch parties or use the additional resources. Any cleanups that are conducted, he said, are intended to address public health needs.

Johnston said his team will work to ensure sidewalks around Vivint Arena are clear if issues arise while streets are closed for festivities. The city will continue its routine enforcement throughout the city while focusing on keeping streets such as 200 South or 500 West as clear as possible.

“But there’s no effort,” he said, “to move everybody out somewhere else at all.”

And, he said, there’s no concerted effort to hide unsheltered residents from visitors.

“Clearly, we know there’s going to be a lot of attention on the blocks around downtown, but, for the most part, folks aren’t really setting up camps there,” he said. “So really, that’s not been the intent and the focus for us at all.”

Jean Hill, director of Salt Lake County’s Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives, said the All-Star Game won’t influence how camp cleanups are conducted. Those actions, she said, will occur based on health risks.

“When things get bad,” she said, “then a cleanup needs to be done in order to keep people from getting any of the nasty diseases that come along with some of the things that happen.”