After weeks of concern and multiple protests over space constraints within the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers, leaders in the state’s capital city announced their plans Thursday to establish a new temporary emergency shelter option for people experiencing homelessness.
The overflow shelter will contain 145 cots and will be located in Sugar House at 2234 S. Highland Drive in the old city-owned Deseret Industries building, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at a news conference with City Council leaders.
“The goal here is that no one would be turned away from a warm bed in the winter months when we have freezing temperatures in particular,” Mendenhall told reporters after the announcement. “I didn’t want us to wait until someone was found deceased who had actively sought shelter and been denied that shelter and I’m grateful that goal was shared by all the partners who are coming together to make this possible.”
The City Council has scheduled a special meeting Friday to approve a temporary land use regulation to allow for the shelter, which is scheduled to close April 15. The overflow option could open to people experiencing homelessness as soon as next week.
The new mayor had pledged before taking office that she would take “immediate” steps to address homelessness and fill any gaps in the system. While she said she wasn’t interested in increasing the occupancy caps at the two shelters in Salt Lake City, she pledged to look at options for a temporary low-barrier emergency center available in the cold winter months. A third shelter, for men experiencing homelessness, is located in South Salt Lake City.
The temporary overflow shelter in Sugar House will be located in a neighborhood that was once vehemently opposed to housing a fourth shelter, proposed in a location on Simpson Avenue that abutted a residential area. The city eventually abandoned that idea amid community outrage.
But District 7 Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who represents the Sugar House area, said she doesn’t expect to see a repeat of those sentiments in response to the overflow shelter announced Thursday.
“I truly do trust and have faith in my community members that they will embrace our communities that are less fortunate than we are,” she said, noting that this site was the most feasible to get up and running in the quickest amount of time facing cold weather conditions.
The city will spend about $5,000 to get the building up to standard and is in the process of clearing exits, ensuring the building is secure and warm and placing the cots, which were provided by the American Red Cross, Mendenhall said. Security guards will be onsite to ensure the safety of both residents and unsheltered individuals.
Landon Clark, chairman of the Sugar House Community Council, said he thinks most neighbors are supportive of the overflow plan but said there is some hesitation.
“People are a little worried about what will happen after April 15 — what will happen to Sugar House Park, Fairmont Park, if people will still stay around,” he said. "I think those are the concerns on people’s minds.”
The shelter will be operable only in the evenings, and people experiencing homelessness will have access to a shuttle to help them get from there to the Weigand Center and to the other resource centers, where they can find food, connect to job services and get housing help.
Homeless advocates have long raised concern about bed availability in the three homeless resource centers, which have space for about 400 fewer people than could fit on beds and mats in The Road Home’s now-shuttered downtown emergency shelter.
The new centers began showing signs of early strain in October, before all three had even opened.
To compensate for additional winter demand for shelter space, state and city leaders engaged in a multiweek housing push and have made available hotel and motel vouchers for women, spots on mats in an overflow shelter for men at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and a 24-hour warming room at the Weigand Center.
The last option offered people on the streets a chair to sit in to get out of the cold but not a space to sleep, and some homeless advocates said they had talked to exhausted people who had been there and hadn’t slept in days. The warming center will close with the opening of the new overflow option, Mendenhall said, but St. Vincent de Paul will remain operational.
Over the past week, an average 693 people have stayed each night in the shelters, which have a total 700 beds. The overflow space has been consistently full with 58 men, and nearly 70 women are in hotel and motel rooms. Additionally, the warming center has seen up to 105 people cycle through each evening, typically with 40 to 70 people in at a time, according to data provided by the state Department of Workforce Services.
Concerns that the closure of the downtown emergency shelter would negatively affect some of the community’s most vulnerable people — and could even result in deaths — reached a boiling point earlier this month, when 17 demonstrators clashed with police and were arrested for camping at Washington Square.
Among their demands were for The Road Home to reopen, a police moratorium on tickets to campers and for the city to offer free public transit fare for all people who stay in shelters.
In the meantime, they’ve created a roaming warming trailer to get those without shelter out of the cold and have helped people experiencing homelessness with laundry and meals.
Some of those activists were at the mayor’s news conference on Monday, with one asking Mendenhall what would happen to the community members who were arrested and whether she would call on city police to stop “criminalizing” people experiencing homelessness.
After a brief exchange, Mendenhall said she was “not going to get into this right now.”
The new mayor, who took the oath of office in a ceremony earlier this month, has expressed support for reexamining municipal code and policies that criminalize homelessness or adversely impact people on the streets, and creating an app or online page that would allow service providers to offer real-time, systemwide updates on available bed space.
Mendenhall acknowledged Thursday that the new overflow center is a temporary solution and called on the state Legislature to fund more affordable housing, both to help people exit homelessness and prevent them from landing on the street in the first place.
“I don’t ever want to have this happen again in Salt Lake City," she said. "We’ve got to have housing, permanent supportive housing, case management, detox and access to all those services so we don’t have to be working in the middle of January to come up with a solution again.”