Erin Mendenhall will explore improvements for homeless services

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.

When Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall takes office Monday, one of the “immediate issues” she’ll face is addressing homelessness and gaps in the new resource center system, which has been dogged by concerns over capacity constraints since its inception.

While she’s not currently amenable to conversations about increasing the occupancy caps at the two shelters located in Salt Lake City, Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that she was interested in exploring options for creating a temporary low-barrier emergency center available in the cold winter months.

“I want to be clear that I’m not looking to build a third shelter in Salt Lake City,” she said, but added that she does see a need “to have more creative conversations with the partners we have and potentially partners we haven’t considered yet in the community that have spaces that could be used with service providers for emergency shelter options.”

Church buildings could be one possibility, Mendenhall said, or senior and recreation centers.

“I can tell you that under my watch, I don’t want a single person to be denied shelter when it’s freezing outside,” she added during an hourlong meeting with The Tribune’s editorial board.

Reexamining the 200-bed occupancy caps at Salt Lake City’s resource centers and exploring low-barrier emergency shelter options were two of hundreds of recommendations outlined in a 131-page document prepared by Mendenhall’s transition committee and related to her first 100 days in office.

The transition memos contain a deluge of ideas from eight subcommittees led by subject-matter experts. They look at ways to improve economic development and environmental sustainability, expand transportation and housing options, boost equity and inclusion, tackle homelessness and cultivate a tech ecosystem in the city.

Her goal in convening the committees, Mendenhall said, was to “solicit a real spectrum of feedback” from a diverse group of voices on ways to think differently about city government. The mayor-elect also facilitated input from residents during a series of open office hours held at city branch libraries over the past few weeks.

Some of the ideas outlined in the documents are simple administrative actions that don’t require a budget impact, like moving control of the Economic Development Loan Fund to a different department. Others are more aggressive, like working to ban single-use plastics in city-owned facilities, or would have an expense, such as increasing investment in electric vehicle charging stations.

Mendenhall wouldn’t say exactly what recommendations she plans to complete from the documents, noting that it would be “premature” to form a plan “before I’ve come into office and been able to talk with the people on the front lines who would be executing the suggestions” and without her own budget to work off yet.

But when it comes to homelessness, the mayor-elect expressed support for several of the ideas from the homeless services transition committee, led by Spencer Eccles, the managing director of The Cynosure Group, and Brittney Nystrom, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

Among those was a commitment to reexamine municipal code and policies that criminalize homelessness or adversely impact people on the streets — such as the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

“One of the tenets of work I’m walking in here with is policy reviews across the board,” Mendenhall said, noting that she will also look at zoning ordinances and language on job applications to improve diversity in city positions.

The effect of eliminating policies that people experiencing homelessness tend to violate more than anyone else could ultimately keep them from getting caught in the criminal justice system and help unsheltered people move off the streets, Nystrom said in an interview Friday.

“The more times you are cited as a lawbreaker, the more difficult it is to kind of return to life as the rest of the community imagines it,” she said. “So if some of those laws are no longer enforced in the same aggressive way or if some of them are taken off of the books, you may have the outcome of someone having an easier time regaining their footing or becoming self-sufficient.”

Nystrom said the committee focused on providing recommendations that balanced the needs of a diverse set of community interests, from business owners and law enforcement officers to volunteers and homeless service providers.

The result, she said, is an “ambitious” but “not overly controversial” set of ideas that focuses on ending the "human suffering that is associated with homelessness.”

In addition to the ideas included in the transition documents, Mendenhall also has some thoughts of her own on how to improve homeless services.

Amid confusion about constantly changing numbers around bed availability, the mayor-elect said she wants to create an app or online page that would allow service providers to offer real-time, systemwide updates on available space.

“You might call five minutes before me and we might end up with different numbers because things are in flux,” she said. “This isn’t rocket science. We should be able to come up with a more accurate and up-to-the moment reflection of what the bed count is. I should be able to sit here as the mayor and tell you whether or not we have room in our shelters right now.”

Mendenhall also wants to see improved transportation options for people experiencing homelessness.

The new resource centers are offering a pilot program that’s busing people between the three resource center facilities, including one in South Salt Lake, and the Weigand day shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood. But Mendenhall said she wants to see a stop added at Library Square, where a number of homeless campers reside.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Take Shelter Coalition, consisting of several community action groups erects shelters on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, at Salt Lake City Hall to show support of the homeless and to demand shelter and dignity for those who have been living on the streets.

“We need to connect them more easily, especially at a time when the Health Department is doing its cleanups,” she said.

The Salt Lake County Health Department’s camping cleanups appear to have ramped up in recent weeks and have come under greater public scrutiny in part as a result of attention from Civil Riot, an activist group that’s best known for its involvement in protesting the inland port.

That group and others began occupying Washington Square outside City Hall starting Thursday night to put pressure on the city to take action on homelessness and members said they would stay there until their demands were met.

Early Sunday morning, police in riot gear arrested more than a dozen people there for violating curfew.

The group is seeking a new shelter downtown; an end to arrests, tickets or harassment for campers; changes to city ordinance to allow the new centers to have more beds; and free transit fare for all who stay in the shelters.

The group also wants to see an equivalent number of beds made available as were in The Road Home’s now-closed emergency shelter. The downtown shelter had nearly the same number of beds as the new resource centers have but had space for about 1,100 people total using mats and cots — nearly 400 more than the resource centers are able to hold.

Friday afternoon, activist Marvin Oliveros said the coalition wasn’t satisfied with the response from state, county and city officials so far to the demands.

The group is also upset about Mendenhall’s plan to provide free fare on public transit to people with tickets to events, like Jazz sporting games and arts events, feeling that its plan to expand transportation for people who are homeless was subverted to benefit people who don’t need a subsidy, he said.

That proposal "came close to two months after we made that same request not for folks that had shelter, not for folks that had resources, but for folks that had their resources stripped from them,” Oliveros said.

Mendenhall said Friday that she and outgoing Mayor Jackie Biskupski had extended an invitation to the protesters to have a sit-down meeting to hear their concerns with no response. She also said her idea for tickets to serve as transit fare and efforts to help unsheltered community members get around the city are not mutually exclusive.

“Expanding transit opportunities for all Salt Lakers," she said, “is a priority I share with our communities.”

Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.