‘They are hurting’: SLC businesses near homeless shelters say they need financial support for persistent property crime

Some have been dropped by insurers and are increasingly paying for repairs out of pocket.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amy Hawkins, Ballpark Community Council Chair, asks a question during a town hall with Salt Lake City police, the mayor and other officials at The Gateway earlier this month about challenges related to homelessness that business and property owners face.

Shatterproof glass, three secure doors and eight catalytic converters.

These items alone amounted to tens of thousands of dollars for Lux Catering and Events, which sits about a block away from the Gail Miller Resource Center. And they aren’t the only costs the Ballpark business has incurred from persistent property crime near the shelter and the homeless encampments that often crop up around it, including vandalism, break-ins and a stolen vehicle, Lux managing partner Kelly Lake said.

Lake and her team are supportive of the shelter, she said. She’s not calling for it to be shut down, or moved. But she and other business owners in the area say they need financial support if they are expected to stay open.

“Financially, there really hasn’t been anything in place [to help],” Lake said. “The city says, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t all be about Salt Lake.’ And they’re not wrong, because it’s a statewide problem.”

But Ballpark businesses say they have been dropped by insurers after repeatedly filing claims, meaning such expenses are increasingly coming out of their own pockets.

City leaders have implemented new police positions and new cross-agency partnerships to limit the impacts of encampments and help keep unsheltered people safe. But Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the city’s local business and property owners shouldn’t be footing the bill for what the state should be helping with.

“The tens of thousands of dollar increases that you as a resident are shouldering are because of the lack of funding for the system that should exist,” Mendenhall said during a town hall on July 6, adding that Utah State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser is “working so hard to get state funding.”

The mayor noted that the $55 million state leaders approved and the Utah Homelessness Council subsequently allocated toward creating about 1,100 new affordable housing units last year “is a drop in the bucket to what the state is able to do and what they’re just beginning to do.”

Policing efforts aimed at supporting businesses

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police Sgt. Nathan Meinzer listens during a community block party at the Gail Miller Resource Center this month.

Kelly Lake’s catering and event planning business opened 27 years ago at 1578 S. 300 West. Since then, Lux has expanded into florals — and expanded its footprint into buildings adjacent to the original site.

“I love our 3rd West location. I love being in Salt Lake,” Lake said. But she noted the location has experienced a series of challenges — especially since the shelter opened in 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic began less than a year later. Now, the business is feeling the effects of construction on 300 West.

Despite thousands in property crime expenses, she noted she hasn’t been hit as hard as other businesses in the area — which she attributes to getting to know her “street neighbors” and working with Volunteers of America.

Still, documenting her experiences is cumbersome. To report a crime or concern, such as abundance of needles in her parking lot, she first calls the Salt Lake City Police Department’s nonemergency line and gets a case number. Then she files a report on the “SLC Mobile” app so the city is aware.

From there, she usually follows up with the Salt Lake City police officer who works as a liaison for her City Council district for updates.

Three Salt Lake City officers currently work as district liaisons, each representing two or three of the City Council’s seven districts. They are meant to foster relationships and build trust to help better address community safety problems, and Lake said her liaison has made her feel heard.

“They’re personable, they show up at community events,” Lake said. “They also will check in with you, they’ll follow up, they’ll let you know if a case is going to trial.”

Her district liaison used to be Sgt. Nate Meinzer. He now leads a new Salt Lake City police program, launched July 9, which stations five-officer squads at both the Gail Miller and Geraldine King resource centers.

These new squads spend about 40 hours a week at the centers, taking calls for service, getting to know the unhoused people who frequent or congregate near each shelter and meeting with business owners in the area, Meinzer said. The Gail Miller Resource Center squad recently hosted a community block party on July 14.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Danielson, owner of Alpha Munitions, at the community block party at the Gail Miller Resource Center.

Salt Lake City police last year also created a new “business community engagement officer” position, but the role is specific to the police department’s central division, which centers on downtown.

That officer, Andrew Sylleloglou, is supposed to serve as a “direct point of contact” for downtown business owners who need law enforcement help. His role is more proactive — for instance, he can suggest that businesses add lighting or change their landscaping to help prevent car burglaries, spokesperson Brent Weisberg said. Businesses are still advised to call 911 when there’s an emergency.

Bryan Hill, general manager of The Gateway, works with Sylleloglou as chair of the Downtown Community Council. He said Sylleloglou provides updates on crime at council meetings, but he also has helped coach business owners about what to say when they report a crime or concern to police to prompt a quicker response.

Hill recalled an instance where a homeless man locked himself inside Costa Vida’s restroom at The Gateway in an attempt to stay there overnight. When he ultimately left, the man bashed in a glass door. It was the second time the door had to be replaced, Hill said, and that time, it cost $800.

After police were contacted, employees kept an eye on the man for about 45 minutes, because he hadn’t yet left Gateway property. But officers didn’t respond until four hours later, Hill said.

“Because we reported it as a property crime — rather than we have a person that’s acting violent, in front of a dining room full of customers ... they put it as low priority,” Hill said. “When PD finally came, he was long gone. And they said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it — the guy’s not here anymore,’ which was extremely frustrating to Costa Vida, and to The Gateway, because what do you do at that point?”

Hill didn’t specify exactly what Sylleloglou told business owners to say to dispatchers in order to prompt a faster police response. But he said the help was appreciated, as The Gateway has had several instances when officers didn’t respond until five or six hours later, if at all.

When asked about Hill’s remarks, Salt Lake City police said they can’t comment on generalities. A police spokesperson said a call similar to the Costa Vida situation Hill described happened on April 1. Police were initially told that a person broke out a window and left. “There was no information to suggest the person was inside the restaurant, refused to leave, or was initially violent towards others,” the spokesperson said in an email.

“Officers did respond but were diverted to other high priority calls for service,” the spokesperson added. An officer later responded to collect evidence, but the spokesperson noted that the case was later closed because video supplied to investigators was “of such poor quality” that the person could not be identified.

‘They are hurting’

Despite police and city efforts, the business community near 300 West and the Gail Miller Resource Center is still suffering, Ballpark Community Council chair Amy Hawkins said.

“I’ve had multiple folks talk to me personally about how they can no longer claim damages to their insurance company because they’ll be dropped,” Hawkins said.

At the town hall earlier this month, Salt Lake City director of homeless policy and outreach Andrew Johnston said the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee wants to tackle homelessness using a format that he said Miami, Fla., used successfully.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City director of homeless policy and outreach Andrew Johnston speaks during a town hall at The Gateway on Thursday, July 6, 2023.

The format would require collaboration between multiple “silos” that work with the unsheltered community — like emergency rooms, Salt Lake City police, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and area jails, among others.

“When we arrest people, it’s very counterproductive to what we’re trying to do,” Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said during the town hall. “We arrest somebody, they go to jail, it sets them back on their ability to get housing, they fall down the list regarding their ability to be able to qualify. So it’s much better to help them, get them into the resources that they need, than trying to arrest our way out of this problem.”

But the work to improve these silos will take time — especially to acquire funding. And business owners still want financial aid in the meantime.

Hawkins said she tried to get a “broken windows” fund added to HB499, a homeless services amendments bill legislators passed in the spring. Utah doesn’t have a property rights restitution fund, Hawkins said, so business owners who feel they can’t file property damage insurance claims are on their own.

“We can’t afford to let the areas around homeless resource centers become just vacant warehouses or vacant empty buildings, because that’ll create further problems, that will compound the issue,” Hawkins said.

“We shouldn’t punish people who either were there in the first place or choose to locate their business in that area,” she continued. “And there [are] people who were there, who are still there — who are trying to make a go of it. And they are hurting.”

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Correction • July 25, 11 a.m.: The story has been updated to correct the name of Gateway general manager Bryan Hill and the address of Lux Catering and Events.