At a packed and occasionally emotional Salt Lake City Council meeting Tuesday, the panel considered changes to the way it regulates temporary housing for the terminally and seriously ill, including an amendment that would remove caps on the number of clients.
More than 30 residents spoke during a public hearing that lasted more than an hour and, at times, became less about the ordinance at issue and more about The INN Between, an embattled homeless hospice on the city’s east side.
While opponents of the proposed amendments worry the changes would worsen traffic and crime in city neighborhoods, advocates argue the residency cap has always been “arbitrary” and that its removal would have no significant effect.
“You’re ruining my life,” Dionn Nielsen, who lived near The INN Between at its former location on Goshen Street, told council members, arguing that the facility is operating as a de facto homeless shelter. “I am very concerned about the zoning change and how it will, again, negatively affect my neighborhood and others in the institutional zones.”
“I encourage the council to adopt measures that best serve the most vulnerable populations of our city,” countered Blair Hodges, arguing that opposition to the INN Between is rooted in fear, stereotypes and misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness. “The values of our city can be seen in the ways that we treat the most vulnerable people among us.”
While most of the conversation focused on The INN Between — with many community members wearing stickers to display their support for the organization — the changes aren’t expected to affect the facility, which plans to stay grandfathered in under its designation.
“Whatever the council does does not impact us in any way,” Kim Correa, The INN Between’s executive director, told The Salt Lake Tribune prior to the meeting. “It would only impact future programs that are trying to do something similar in Salt Lake City or if we bought another building.”
After considering public comment, the council voted Tuesday to conduct more study and to continue the conversation at a later meeting.
The INN Between, which is zoned with 25 beds for hospice patients and 25 beds for assisted living, has requested an exception to its current restrictions that would allow a total of 75 beds. Correa told The Salt Lake Tribune that while the facility doesn’t anticipate having more than 50 patients at any one time, the requested change would offer more flexibility in dealing with the different categories of residents.
The City Council created a 25-person cap when it first developed a land-use classification regulating facilities like The INN Between in 2015. That was “an inadvertent mistake,” city planners say in documents provided to the council, the major consequence of which is “the inability of existing facilities to expand.”
But while some neighbors fear the land-use changes would allow The INN Between or facilities like it to host an unlimited number of residents, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said that isn’t the case.
“The next question when we say we’re going to remove the cap is what is the next limiting factor?” Mendenhall, who represents the area where The INN Between is located, told The Tribune. “It could be parking. It could also be the fire code.”
The proposed text amendments create two size designations for these temporary homes. A small “congregate care facility” would be defined as six clients or fewer and would be allowed in downtown, mixed use and residential areas. A large facility, consisting of seven or more clients, would be allowed in commercial, downtown and high-density residential areas.
Additionally, the changes would remove an 800-foot distance requirement between these types of facilities, which city staff have said potentially limits options for people with disabilities seeking housing and does not comply with the federal Fair Housing Act.
The public hearing on Tuesday is part of the city’s larger efforts to engage dialogue on The INN Between and facilities like it, Mendenhall said.
“We are using city resources and data to track and hold The INN Between accountable for the impacts that we can measure on the community, and hearing from our residents in this process is a part of that,” she said.
Some neighbors say they have noticed increased traffic and crime and argue the facility is operating as a de facto homeless shelter; other residents counter that they haven’t seen any adverse impacts as a result of the facility, but say some have a ‘Not in My Backyard’ attitude rooted in fear and stigma of homelessness.
But the council heard from only one person who identified as having experienced homelessness themselves. Siegi Petzold told the council that he has stayed at the Rescue Mission shelter and is working at The INN Between in an effort to get his life on track and said it offers a safe place for people who have nowhere else to go.
“These are human beings that are dying, that are sick, that are in medical need,” he said, dismissing the idea that The INN Between operates as a homeless shelter. “Living in the homeless shelter, I’ve seen many people go to the hospital to get treatment and immediately get turned away for lack of insurance. A lot of hospitals will say, ‘Homeless? Okay, here you go, have a nice night.’ [But] they have medical needs that would kill them on the streets.”
The council will hold an additional public hearing on the congregate care facility amendments at a future public meeting.