South Salt Lake, nonprofit group clash over homeless resource center, so state may step in before time runs out

South Salt Lake and Shelter the Homeless are locked in a standoff over a permit needed to open a new homeless resource center within the city’s boundaries — and the state could take matters into its own hands as service providers scramble to open the facility before cold weather sets in.

The board for the nonprofit Shelter the Homeless requested a preliminary email vote Thursday on a draft resolution to convey the shelter property to the state as a way of breaking the stalemate with the city. The outcome of that vote was untallied as of Thursday evening, but the resolution appeared to have support, according to board Chairman Harris Simmons.

At the heart of the issue is an impasse — between the city and those working on the transition to a new model for providing services to the homeless — about how the resource center should operate.

South Salt Lake’s 33-page drafted permit spells out numerous rules and conditions to govern day-to-day life at the shelter, some of which advocates have found objectionable. The city is demanding, for example, that the 300-bed men’s shelter at 3380 S. 1000 West turn away drug addicts, check each person for warrants and reimburse South Salt Lake for public safety calls beyond the costs the state already is covering.

“There’s a lot of common ground and both entities want the same thing, but we have different ideas of how to get there,” said Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the South Salt Lake facility and two other planned resource centers. “At this point of the process, we can’t afford any additional delays on opening the resource centers.”

The centers were originally scheduled to open by June 30, the deadline for the emergency downtown shelter’s closure. That date to close The Road Home in Salt Lake City has been pushed back twice, to sometime in October, partly due to complications getting the necessary approvals for construction in South Salt Lake.

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood and other city leaders have long been resistant to placing a shelter within city boundaries, pointing to the municipality’s small tax base and the burden it already carries for providing services they believe would not be tolerated in wealthier municipalities.

Meanwhile, the conditional use permits in Salt Lake City, where the other two resource centers will be located, have been finished for months. The first of the resource centers there is now scheduled to open toward the end of this month, while the one in South Salt Lake likely won’t open until October.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharon Thompson hangs on to her breakfast outside the Road Home on July 11, 2019.

‘We’re the regulator’

Shelter the Homeless warned South Salt Lake last week that unless the city finalized its resource center permit by July 19 to the satisfaction of both parties that it would file a resolution turning over the process to the state.

Wood said the city is on track to submit the permit to its Planning Commission for approval in August. But, on Thursday, the nonprofit’s board leader circulated a draft resolution seeking to convey the resource center property to the state, according to an email forwarded to The Salt Lake Tribune. If passed by the 15-member board and ratified at its September meeting, that resolution would allow for execution of a deed to the state for $100 upon the building’s completion, which is expected in September.

If Shelter the Homeless deeds the resource center property to the state, Utah officials would gain regulatory authority over the site and would likely impose terms and conditions similar to those in place at the other two shelters, according to Jim Russell, Utah’s director of facilities construction and management.

State representatives say they’ve made a good-faith effort to address South Salt Lake’s concerns, even spending $1.4 million to build an access road and make utility improvements.

The city has been going back and forth with Shelter the Homeless for months over the conditional use permits, Wood said, and has compromised on all but the most critical points, which she called “nonnegotiables” in her letter. Ultimately, the permitting process is not a “partnering exercise,” she said, and the city isn’t obligated to make sure Shelter the Homeless is happy with all the document’s provisions.

“We initially went into it with Shelter the Homeless thinking it was like negotiations,” she said. “When, in reality, you know, we’re the regulator.”

Among the sticking points in the permit are proposed requirements that the shelter turn away walk-in clients unless they have a referral; that the average length of stay for clients not exceed 90 days unless the mayor declares an emergency; and that resource center staff check each client for outstanding arrest warrants. The city also wants compensation for all police and fire service to the resource center and is asking Shelter the Homeless to pick up the tab for whatever public safety costs the state doesn’t cover.

The last one is among the biggest concerns for Shelter the Homeless, which, as a nonprofit, doesn’t have money available to reimburse the city, Cochrane said. He also pointed out that the city does not ask other businesses in the area to reimburse them for emergency services.

Wood said she anticipates the state will take care of the city’s increased public safety costs for now, but the city wants to put Shelter the Homeless on the hook in case the Legislature someday withdraws that funding support.

Some of the city’s other stipulations run counter to a central principle of the new homelessness model: that no matter which of the three resource centers a person enters, the ground rules and services will be roughly the same.

“If you have a different set of rules at one [resource center] versus the others, it’s not going to work,” Cochrane said. “You need to make sure all those conditions and codes of conduct are similar across the board.”

South Salt Lake Council Chairman Ben Pender said the council was unaware of the ongoing permitting challenges with Shelter the Homeless and wasn’t immediately able to speak to those disputes or to the mayor’s letter, a copy of which he received Thursday afternoon.

“I am very disappointed the mayor had not included the council in the discussion," he said. “I feel as though we’ve been kind of left out of the loop.”

‘An unsafe environment’?

Clients will have to go through an intake process designed to pinpoint their needs and explore alternatives to emergency shelter. Transition team members say this screening should be available at all three resource centers, meaning that each would act as a gateway for walk-in clients.

South Salt Lake, however, argues its shelter is not an appropriate point of entry and is looking to ensure the facility will accept only new clients referred from elsewhere.

Wood said officials repeatedly indicated that the South Salt Lake shelter would serve a “low-needs population,” and the proposed permit rules simply reflect these assurances. What’s at stake, according to the city’s drafted permit, is preventing the “lawlessness” and “human tragedy” that have plagued The Road Home’s shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood in downtown Salt Lake City.

“It concerns me that … guns, weapons and drugs that will be allowed into that facility will cause an unsafe environment for the residents there and then also for the residents of South Salt Lake,” Wood said in a phone interview.

Transition leaders say the centers will screen clients for illicit drugs and weapons as part of the intake process and will not allow either inside.

The opening of the new centers is part of a larger shift away from a centralized model for providing services. Each will serve specific populations and offer access to health services, a full mobile medical clinic and on-site case managers to help with things like job counseling.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Work continues on the new homeless resource center at 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake, located next to the Jordan River Parkway on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

Under that new model, Cochrane said, the facilities will have a different impact on the communities in which they are placed.

“No one wants this to become another downtown Rio Grande situation like we had a couple of years ago,” Cochrane said.

To make sure the centers succeed, he said it’s important the rules don’t become so demanding that people experiencing homelessness would rather sleep on the streets than seek services.

Advocates and city leaders have raised concerns about capacity needs within the new shelters once the 1,100-capacity Rio Grande facility closes, with only 700 beds to take its place. Now, some worry the homeless would have nowhere to go if South Salt Lake’s new center, the largest of the three, turns them away.

Wood, who noted that she was a relative late-comer to conversations about the homeless transition, said she thought officials had a plan for sheltering higher-needs individuals somewhere closer to downtown services.

“I honestly believed that … if they’re telling me we’re getting the low-needs population, that they had a plan as to where the high-needs population would go,” she said.

The conditional use permit stipulates that illicit drug users should be taken to an appropriate drug treatment or detoxification facility, and individuals with outstanding warrants or contraband should be referred to the South Salt Lake Police Department.

Jean Hill, co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said some of South Salt Lake’s proposed rules go against best practices for shelters.

“We can’t turn people away who are addicts because we just won’t be able to serve a substantial portion of the population if that’s going to be the standard,” said Hill, who’s also a government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. “The best practice isn’t to leave someone on the street because he’s an addict.”