‘This is a moral issue’ — Salt Lake City’s eight mayoral candidates describe their plans for addressing homelessness

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, Sen. Luz Escamilla, environmental lawyer David Garbett, freelance journalist Richard Goldberger, retired electrical engineer Rainer Huck, businessman David Ibarra and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall get ready to debate for the Salt Lake City mayoral seat, July 15, 2019, in the KSL-TV Broadcast House studios about a month before the Aug. 13 primary, when voters will decide which two of the eight candidates will advance to the November election and duel it out to become Salt Lake City's next mayor.

Salt Lake City’s eight mayoral candidates outlined their plans Monday for serving the area’s homeless population during and after a massive shelter transition — with one of the hopefuls warning of a looming “humanitarian crisis” if the city drops the ball.

The rivals largely abstained from personal attacks during the restrained, televised forum at the KSL-TV studios, with the format allowing them to answer questions but not respond directly to one another. However, they spoke vividly about the city’s responsibility to its homeless community.

“This is a moral issue for us as a city, for us as a people,” said former state Sen. Jim Dabakis during the discussion sponsored by the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group that has been actively involved in addressing homelessness in the Rio Grande area.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall shared her concerns about shelter capacity after The Road Home’s downtown facility — which officials say has room for nearly 1,000 — closes later this year, and the homeless population transition into three resource centers that can altogether accommodate 700. She and other mayoral candidates have warned of a potential space shortage that could leave people without shelter and contending with cold-weather conditions.

"That's something that we need to start planning for now, so we aren't caught with our backs against the wall and a humanitarian crisis on our hands and people without a place to sleep," she said.

The Pioneer Park Coalition, a group that advocates for Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, earlier this month raised alarm about delays in the shift from the downtown shelter to the three, scattered resource centers. In a newsletter, the organization worried that the new shelters wouldn’t be open with enough lead time before the winter sets in.

Businessman David Ibarra said before the city opens new homelessness initiatives, officials should take stock of the shift to a dispersed model for delivering homeless services. The three new resource centers — each offering case management, job training and housing assistance — are supposed to help people move off the streets and out of the cycle of homelessness, Ibarra noted.

“Now, if that doesn’t happen, we need to be able to pivot quickly and look at what other cities are doing to service the shelter-resistant, that want to sleep on the street. What are we going to do to solve that?” said Ibarra, adding that Austin, Texas; Tampa, Fla.; and San Antonio could serve as models.

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold said he supports a “housing first” model that prioritizes putting people into permanent housing and then supports their efforts to stay there. Unfortunately, the city currently lacks the necessary affordable housing to execute that plan, he said.

"We have failed as a city and we have failed as a community in providing the necessary housing to move people out of homelessness," Penfold told reporters after the debate.

Former Pioneer Park Coalition leader David Garbett said Salt Lake City should step up as an “intellectual leader” in responding to homelessness. Nonprofits, the state and county are all involved in serving this population, but the city can coordinate these partners and guide their collective approach.

"Our first priority has to be ensuring that we have adequate shelter space for everybody who is experiencing homelessness," he said.

Similarly, Sen. Luz Escamilla said the city, state and county need to work together on homelessness. As a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, Escamilla said she has a proven ability to work across the aisle and a record of passing bills despite being in the minority. Outreach to city residents would be another component of her plan for addressing homelessness.

“In order to be responsive to the public, we need to bring City Hall to the neighborhoods,” she said.

Dabakis also said the mayor's job will be to keep the state and other entities working together on homelessness.

Richard Goldberger mentioned that he'd want to enlist homeless individuals — although he prefers to use the term "domestic refugees" — to clean the city's streets.

"I want to pay some of our American refugees 9, 10 bucks an hour to clean, clean, clean, scrub," the freelance journalist said.

Speaking later to reporters, Goldberger described homeless individuals as “feral” because they’re forced to focus on basic survival needs and “defecate in the streets.”

Rainer Huck, an ATV activist, described his plan for building a “homeless campus” with room for 5,000 people, perhaps in the city’s northwest quadrant. The campus would have an area where homeless individuals could camp outdoors and would also offer indoor shelter and services, he said.

Asked whether segregating homeless individuals from the rest of the community is problematic, Huck said it seems like the best option.

“I just don’t think the integration works very well. You know, they were integrated at Rio Grande, and who liked that?” Huck told reporters after the candidate forum.

The eight candidates, who are heading into an Aug. 13 primary, also fielded questions about air quality, transportation needs and the inland port.