While buzz was building around Salt Lake City hosting the NBA All-Star Game, the Utah Jazz were thinking about more than basketball.
As the game and the festivities surrounding it approached, the team’s top executive was tapped into talks about getting more unsheltered folks off the streets while the national spotlight turned to Utah’s capital.
The extent of the Jazz’s involvement in those plans, however, wasn’t clear until after the Feb. 19 game.
“In the months leading up to hosting All-Star weekend,” Jazz President Jim Olson said in a Feb. 27 statement in response to queries from The Salt Lake Tribune, “we had a variety of discussions with local partners regarding outreach, support and resources for the entire Salt Lake community during All-Star weekend to ensure as little disruption as possible for all of our local residents, including our unhoused population.”
Olson’s comments were a reversal of the team’s public statement ahead of All-Star weekend, when a spokesperson said the Jazz “had no involvement on this topic” in response to The Tribune’s questions about whether the team was working with any groups or kicking in any money for additional homelessness resources.
When asked why emails and text messages obtained by The Tribune through a public records request ran counter to the team’s earlier remarks, the Jazz’s top spokesperson, Caroline Klein, said the initial response was a mistake, coming at a time when employees across the organization were participating in hundreds of meetings to prepare for the big event.
It would have been virtually impossible, Klein said, for anyone to know every conversation that occurred or every topic discussed.
“When the Jazz public relations team was originally contacted by a Tribune reporter and asked if the Jazz was involved in any discussions regarding the community’s homeless population over All-Star weekend, we responded ‘no’ prior to doing the due diligence of asking everyone in the organization,” she said. “We only later discovered that the subject — among many others — had been brought up during a meeting and that there was a subsequent email exchange on the topic. It was an honest mistake made by a team working tirelessly around the clock, and we apologize for any miscommunication.”
Although dozens of protesters took to the streets to call attention to the city’s unsheltered population, there were no reports of widespread crackdowns against groups or individuals at or near Vivint Arena during All-Star weekend.
When the issue first arose
More than a month before the game, Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, sent an email to other service providers and government officials to discuss shelter options for Utahns experiencing homelessness during All-Star weekend.
The Jan. 11 message sparked a chain reaction of collaboration to get more resources on line before an anticipated 100,000 visitors descended on Salt Lake City.
“From my perspective,” Flynn wrote in a follow-up email, “this is really about providing a calm and safe environment for our population to avoid any potential issues with the huge influx of people and increased police presence.”
Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s top homelessness official, responded to the thread Jan. 18 and called for a meeting to start planning.
“Slight update,” Johnston wrote minutes later in an email (slightly edited for clarity), “Jim Olson from the Jazz has asked [county] Mayor [Jenny] Wilson to come to him with the needs the providers would have to provide an alternative for people around Rio Grande over All-Star weekend. Ideally, he’d love it by this Friday, or have a date when we would have those needs to him.”
Johnston later said in an interview that he never spoke directly to Jazz officials and that his knowledge of the team’s involvement stemmed from what he heard from others in the planning group.
Wilson said in a March 1 interview that she was already having fairly regular conversations with Olson when she broached the idea of offering more services for Utahns experiencing homelessness during All-Star weekend.
“I said [to Olson], ‘Hey, this is bubbling up as an idea. What do you think?’” Wilson said. “And I recall him saying something like, ‘Well, what does that look like?’”
The discussions did not include plans to use any of the $500,000 the county already contributed to the Jazz for All-Star weekend, she explained, because that money was committed elsewhere.
The additional homelessness resources, she said, did not come at the request of the team, and no one expected the Jazz to pay for them. But records show talk of a potential Jazz payment.
In a Jan. 26 email to the Salt Lake City library’s interim executive director, Deborah Ehrman, Johnston asked whether the library would be open to making space available for unsheltered residents during the weekend.
“There is some concern about a lot of people being unsheltered downtown during the weekend,” he wrote. “The Jazz are offering some financial support for options.”
No library events ever materialized.
On Feb. 2, Johnston emailed local and state officials with an update.
“I understand that Mayor Wilson sent the monetary request for $50,000 to the Jazz earlier this week,” Johnston wrote, “for the services outlined in the attached document.”
Those services included staffing incentives for service providers and additional temporary shelter space.
A day earlier, Wilson emailed Olson to tell him there was a way to expand shelter hours and boost response efforts during All-Star weekend, but the plan faced a financial hole. She offered to get on a phone call with Olson to discuss it.
“Thanks for your efforts on this,” Olson emailed back the next day. “I guess it comes down to where do the funds come from? The State, County and City have all contributed generously to All-Star weekend. We [the Jazz] are still looking at a seven-figure loss. Are you aware of any other organizations that may have the ability to help fund this.”
State steps in
A week later, the Utah Homelessness Council voted to free up state money from the sale of the Rio Grande property to use as needed for winter shelter space and large events like the All-Star Game.
Even as the response plan was getting firmed up and the funding was falling into place, public officials didn’t want to talk about the Jazz’s involvement earlier in the process.
Johnston told The Tribune just before a Feb. 9 Utah Homelessness Council meeting that he was unaware of any communications with the Jazz.
His own emails showed otherwise.
“I was being very careful as usual,” he explained after the game, “to be clear about what I knew directly and what I had heard secondhand.”
During the council meeting, county officials discussed internally how to answer The Tribune’s questions about funding for the increased homelessness response.
“I was just the messenger, but I answered his [the reporter’s] question, ‘Is there NBA funding,’ with one word — NO,” Wilson spokesperson Amy Bender wrote in a Feb. 9 email to the mayor. “It was true and honest. He didn’t ask me if the Jazz specifically were funding or if there were talks about the NBA funding, just if they did. That said — I still believe the money needs to be the side story as it’s not funded from one place.”
In the same email thread, Bender shared with Wilson The Tribune’s questions about whether the NBA or the Jazz had any involvement with funding the additional resources.
She did not answer those questions.
Bender later explained she didn’t want conversations about money to overshadow efforts to keep unsheltered residents safe during the festivities.
The final plan included incentives for shelter staffers, transportation, food so those experiencing homelessness could view the game at watch parties in the homeless resource centers, and a temporary 90-bed shelter at the Central City Recreation Center. The rec center opened for daytime activities on game day but did not operate overnight as initially planned.
Officials have insisted the additional resources for All-Star weekend were intended to provide a safe environment for unsheltered residents and were not offered to keep them out of the public eye.
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