Mayor bans new homeless shelters in Salt Lake City, temporarily

Mayor Erin Mendenhall is trying to block a land deal to create an overflow shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall took emergency action Monday to ban new homeless shelters for the next six months, a move aimed at halting plans for an overflow shelter in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood.

The mayor announced her temporary action during an online community council meeting and emphasized that she still supports the need for an additional 300 temporary beds this winter.

“We absolutely have a crisis on our hands about winter overflow shelter needs,” she told a joint meeting of the Central 9th and Ballpark community councils. “And my actions today do not prohibit a provider from applying for a conditional use permit for this winter.”

Mendenhall said she’s frustrated there hasn’t been a public process about an attempt to turn a detoxification center into a permanent overflow shelter that could take in 80 to 100 people at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave. That overflow shelter wouldn’t be available this winter, but it could be on line in 2022.

The proposal, which is still under consideration, would have the Volunteers of America Utah sell the property to the nonprofit Shelter the Homeless. The VOA is moving its detox center to Redwood Road in 2022. State leaders are backing this plan and have put up $3 million to support the sale.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers of America detoxification center, on Brooklyn Avenue, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Mendenhall is on the board of Shelter the Homeless. She said she didn’t know about the potential purchase until the day of the Utah Homelessness Council meeting in August when the $3 million in state money was approved. She now says that there’s a “glaring need” for more public input before a new shelter is placed in a city.

Mendenhall’s emergency action blocks any ordinance change involving a permanent shelter for six months, unless it is one she submits to the City Council. It also requires the City Council to consider creating separate rules for the placement of a permanent shelter, as opposed to a temporary one.

Mendenhall originally supported the Brooklyn Avenue plan as a member of the Utah Homelessness Council, but she has since reversed course and now says the project was misrepresented as temporary. She also argues that Salt Lake City is shouldering too much of the responsibility for caring for the state’s unsheltered population.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has been searching for additional sites for an overflow shelter and has been supportive of the Brooklyn Avenue deal.

“The coalition is not seeking another permanent shelter,” Jean Hill, the group’s co-chair, said Monday, “though we are looking for a dedicated facility to address temporary overflow needs during temperature extremes.”

Hill said if Salt Lake City doesn’t want to house any more permanent shelters, “we must agree as a state to invest significantly in deeply affordable and permanent supportive housing so people can move out of homelessness more quickly and stay housed.”

Mendenhall is on board with that. She’s among a group of advocates calling on the state to create a $200 million fund to support affordable housing using federal pandemic relief.

Wayne Niederhauser is the state homelessness coordinator and a member of the Utah Homelessness Council that approved $3 million for the Brooklyn Avenue project. In reaction to the mayor’s moratorium, he said Tuesday the state will continue to back the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

“We will continue to work with the coalition and cities in the county to identify overflow shelter solutions, which are essential for the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness during the winter.”

Correction • Oct. 5, 10:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Utah Homelessness Council.