Midvale mayor opposes using a hotel to house the homeless this winter

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) In this Oct. 23, 2008, file photo, Dale Griffin, lead maintenance man for the Road Home Shelter, walks down the long isle of the overflow family shelter in Midvale.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is closing in on two overflow sites to house unsheltered people experiencing homelessness this winter — but at least one of the spots is coming under fire.

Midvale Mayor Robert Hale said Tuesday that he’s opposed to the proposal to use the La Quinta Inn on 7200 South to move people off the streets as the weather grows colder, arguing the location has not been "well thought out.”

“It’s within a half mile that we try to protect [because of] our homeless shelter,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview Tuesday, referencing the city’s Midvale Family Shelter. “It’s also in a high crime area. We’ve got extra officers working 7200 South, [near] the freeway. We’ve got other motels in the area that accept cash for payment, which brings its own crime element. And we’ve got a brand new multihundred-unit apartment building going up right across the back fence.”

Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said Tuesday that the group brought city leaders in on the effort to use the hotel after the property owner approached leaders in the homelessness arena and offered up the site.

During a recent walk-through, Hill said Hale expressed concerns. “But it’s new to us that they’re not now willing to entertain this,” she said.

“It’s a willing hotel owner who otherwise won’t be full for the next several months, so that revenue will be lost to him and to the city” if the proposal doesn’t move forward, she added.

Hill said the coalition had identified a list of eight potential spots for an overflow space this winter and is getting close to solidifying the use of the Midvale site and another one that she declined to name, with space to house about 200 people between them.

The other city has been more welcoming, she said, “but frankly no city is going to open their arms to the homeless, so I’m not sure with snow on the ground how much longer we can talk.”

Unlike the Sugar House temporary shelter that was opened last year, the Midvale property isn’t city-owned, so Hill said the coalition doesn’t need the permission of city leaders to use it for overflow purposes, noting that a municipality can’t tell a hotel renter “they can’t rent to certain people.”

Homeless leaders would, however, likely need city approval to implement additional onsite security and services under city zoning code — components she said could be lost without support from Midvale leaders.

“The only change we would have to make is people would not get services, which is just utterly unfortunate,” Hill said.

Midvale city staff disputed that characterization of their land use ordinances during a City Council meeting on Tuesday, noting that an overflow shelter use would not be allowed at that site — or anywhere in the city — under the municipality’s zoning code.

“If the project were to proceed under the current policy of the city then it would potentially jeopardize the business license of the operator of that hotel,” Matt Dahl, assistant city manager, told the council during its virtual meeting.

Councilman Dustin Gettel said during the meeting that he had until Monday been unaware of the proposal and said he was “disappointed” in what he perceived as a lack of transparency in the process the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness had gone through.

He also expressed a need for other cities to step up to help address homelessness in the county — such as “Riverton, Draper, any of the southern counties that have much larger expanses of land and probably just as empty of hotels that have the infrastructure in place to help out folks experiencing homelessness."

That way, he said, "a smaller city with less tax revenue like Midvale isn’t forced to take folks in an area where we’ve expressed concerns that it’s unsafe for a person experiencing homelessness.”

Hale raised similar concerns in an interview with The Tribune on Tuesday, noting that while he recognizes the need for an emergency overflow shelter — given the space constraints at the Salt Lake Valley’s three new homeless resource centers — he doesn’t think the responsibility should fall to Midvale.

“They do need a place,” he said. “It just can’t be right next to a family shelter which overloads this 30,000 [people] community in 6 square miles with potentially another 140 people looking for work, looking for food, looking for sustenance, looking for ways to get out of homelessness.”

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-demolished downtown emergency shelter. The system was overloaded last winter before the opening of the temporary shelter in Salt Lake City in January, with temperatures dropping dangerously low as too many people sought access to too few beds.

To prevent a similar situation during a winter exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness began forming winter overflow capacity plans this summer.

Hill said Tuesday that the coalition plans to meet with Midvale leaders to talk through the issues Hale has raised and to work toward a solution, with the aim of opening both overflow shelters early next week.

But if Midvale’s mayor had his way, the coalition would start from scratch to find another site.

“We’ve got to use some common sense now, swallow hard and look for another location for this adult overflow,” Hale said. “That’s my feeling.”