No vote from state lawmakers on $3M plan for Salt Lake City homelessness overflow shelter

Residents in the Ballpark neighborhood have complained that state officials haven’t solicited community input on the proposal.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) State lawmakers voted this week on whether to set aside funding for an overflow homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. Camp Last Hope, a former encampment, was built on abandoned railroad tracks under the freeway. Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

A Utah legislative committee had little to say Tuesday about setting aside $3 million in state funding to convert a Salt Lake City detoxification center into an overflow emergency shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Lawmakers didn’t offer any recommendations about the proposal, despite pushback from residents in the Ballpark neighborhood where the facility is located and opposition from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Critics of the plan hoped that the legislative spending committee would veto it on Tuesday. However, state homelessness officials announced during the meeting that lawmakers didn’t have to vote on the funding after all — and simply needed to review the proposal and offer suggestions if they wished.

Salt Lake City planning officials will now consider the proposal for an overflow site and day shelter at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave., according to a spokeswoman for the Utah Office of Homeless Services.

Mendenhall announced last week she’d rescinded her support for the project after learning of another possible plan to locate additional shelter beds in the city. As a member of the Utah Homelessness Council, the mayor had initially supported the overflow facility, but she later argued that Salt Lake City alone should not be responsible for addressing the need for more shelter beds.

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, a Salt Lake City Democrat, echoed those concerns during Tuesday’s meeting.

“There is an inordinate amount of burden that we’re placing on this community,” she said. “And I think that we need to be much more measured and fair when we consider how much we’re going to ask a community to take on.”

Dailey-Provost added that addressing homelessness is “the responsibility of every person in the state, not just the people in Salt Lake City.”

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, another Democrat from Salt Lake City, said her caucus was worried about a lack of public input in the decision and called for competitive bidding before the state awards $3 million for the overflow plan.

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, the nonprofit 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 on Redwood Road in 2022, according to state officials.

Money for the project is coming from the state’s roughly $6 million sale of the former Road Home emergency shelter property in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homeless services coordinator, said the remaining half of the funding would go toward paying down debt on the three new resource centers scattered across the Salt Lake Valley.

The effort to add more overflow beds follows several winters that have strained the state’s new homeless service system.

The three new resource 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.

Last year, Salt Lake City opened a temporary overflow shelter in the Airport Inn Hotel, while Millcreek designated a former memory care facility as another temporary shelter. Officials and providers have also relied on hotel and motel vouchers to fill the gap between the available beds and the demand.

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 although they brought forward the plan for an overflow shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood, coalition members also agree that Salt Lake City has shouldered a disproportionate share of the responsibility for finding additional bed space.

In a recent letter to The Salt Lake Tribune, coalition co-chairs Rob Wesemann and Jean Hill implored a community outside of Salt Lake City to “help us provide at least 90-100 beds for emergency overflow this October through April, and preferably beyond so that we can stop the yearly battle for temporary solutions and start focusing on the best solution to homelessness, housing.”

“People experiencing homelessness are not welcomed with open arms in most places,” they continued. “While Utahns are phenomenally generous in their donations to homeless services, when it comes to bringing the homeless to shelter in an area, few put out the welcome mat.”