Mayor Erin Mendenhall now opposes opening overflow homeless shelter in Salt Lake’s Ballpark neighborhood

The $3 million proposal will come before a state legislative committee next week for consideration.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks at a news conference on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Mendenhall on Thursday released a statement opposing a plan for an overflow emergency homeless shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall has pulled back her support for opening a new overflow emergency homeless center in the Ballpark neighborhood, saying it is “simply untenable” to keep adding shelter beds in Salt Lake City.

The mayor acknowledged in a statement released Thursday that she previously backed the plan to convert an existing detoxification center at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave. into a day shelter and emergency overflow space for individuals experiencing homelessness.

But Mendenhall said she’s since learned of “the very real possibility” that service providers might try to locate additional emergency shelter beds at a second site in the city. While she agrees there’s an acute need for more shelter space, she argues the burden for providing it shouldn’t fall on Salt Lake City alone.

“It is simply untenable to ask this City to support two more emergency shelters on top of the 853 beds we already support, let alone to ask the Ballpark community to shoulder another homeless services facility with zero guaranteed support dollars from the State,” Mendenhall said in her statement and on a video shared on social media.

Her statement did not provide any details about the second shelter bed proposal.

However, Jean Hill, who is a co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said her group has been looking for an additional site that could both act as overflow and accommodate individuals with high medical needs.

Coalition members who have advanced the shelter proposal don’t believe it will substantially change the neighborhood, she said, since most clients in the existing detoxification center are also homeless. And officials and providers must do something to meet the area’s need for shelter beds and make sure people aren’t stuck outside in dangerously cold weather, she said.

“Having it as an overflow might actually improve the camping situation, because we would have a place to put people inside,” she said.

However, the new Ballpark shelter proposal has stirred opposition among residents, who say officials have pushed ahead without informing or listening to the community.

Late last month, the Utah Homelessness Council — which includes Mendenhall — voted in favor of directing $3 million in state funds to Shelter the Homeless so the nonprofit could buy the Brooklyn Avenue property.

Amy Hawkins, who chairs the Ballpark Community Council, said she objects to putting an adult emergency overflow location just a couple of blocks away from the Volunteers of America Utah youth shelter and from Spy Hop, a digital media arts center for students as young as 9. And considering the public safety concerns in her community, she believes the Ballpark shelter proposal would put a vulnerable population at risk.

“It seems perverse to continue to site more homeless resources on a location that has a proven track record of lack of safety for people experiencing homelessness,” Hawkins said.

The community council was scheduled to hold a meeting on the proposal Thursday night.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homeless services coordinator, said there’s still an opportunity for community input as the shelter proposal goes through the city land use approval process.

“We’re not reaching out to neighborhoods in this situation as a state,” he said. “As [the Utah Homelessness Council], we leave that up to local cities.”

The detoxification center in the Ballpark community could furnish an additional 80 to 100 overflow beds by the fall and winter of 2022, if the conversion plan proceeds.

Under the proposal, Shelter the Homeless would buy the center, which is currently owned and operated by Volunteers of America Utah. The detoxification services are slated to move into a larger facility in 2022.

The $3 million state funding proposal is slated to come before a legislative committee for consideration next week. If approved, the project would exhaust half the proceeds from the state’s roughly $6 million sale of the former Road Home emergency shelter property in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

Hawkins said she expects the state lawmakers will look at the spending plan with a critical eye and hopes they’ll veto it.

The effort to add more overflow beds follows several winters that have strained the state’s new homeless service system, made up of three resource centers scattered across the Salt Lake Valley.

The centers collectively have space for 400 fewer people than the Road Home shelter they replaced, and officials have been relying on stopgap solutions in recent years to make up the shortfall and keep people off the streets on frigid nights.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has estimated there’s a need for at least 300 additional overflow beds to close the gap. And while Mendenhall agrees with this assessment, she contends that these beds should be dispersed more evenly throughout the county.

Three permanent shelters with combined space for 430 people are located in Salt Lake City, as are 423 winter overflow beds in hotels and motels and at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, city officials say.

“Salt Lake City represents only 17% of the population of Salt Lake County, but expansion of bed capacity in the countywide homeless services system seems to be predominantly focused here,” Mendenhall said in her statement. “New emergency shelter beds must also come online in jurisdictions throughout the County to better balance the system.”

In her view, Salt Lake City should also get additional state funding for public safety measures related to the homeless services it provides and to support its Downtown Ambassador Program — an initiative to improve public safety without increasing law enforcement.

Niederhauser said Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake do experience the greatest impacts from the state’s shelter system and, like Mendenhall, he wants to see other communities contribute more. However, his Office of Homeless Services can do little more than encourage participation, he said.

“This is going to take all of us to pitch in and help in order for us to make any progress,” Niederhauser said. “But as a state office, we can’t force anything on any municipality.”

A longer-term solution, Niederhauser and others agree, centers on building affordable housing so more people can exit shelters quickly and fewer people become homeless in the first place. Hill argues that without addressing the urgent need for shelter beds, it’s hard to focus on this goal.

“As long as we have to keep going from year to year in crisis mode, we can’t have the focus we need on the ultimate solution, which is housing,” she said.

Hawkins said the Ballpark shelter plan works directly against housing goals, since it could jeopardize an affordable project across the street from the detoxification facility. The developer for the proposed 238-unit development, called Bumper House, said he wasn’t aware of the shelter plan until it was reported in The Salt Lake Tribune a few weeks ago.

“It’s catastrophic for us,” said George Hauser, the developer. “We don’t really know whether we have a project at this point.”

If the shelter plan moves forward, he said, it might be possible to reinvent the project, but it would mean starting the financing process all over again.