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A plan to convert a Salt Lake City detox center into a warm place for homeless people to stay in the winter spurred an outcry among those living in the area and led Mayor Erin Mendenhall to impose a six-month moratorium on new permanent homeless shelters.
In the coming months, this move will kick-start a debate among city leaders about where a shelter could be allowed and under what circumstances.
It also had a more immediate effect. It killed the plan for Volunteers of America Utah to sell its detox center at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave. (1025 South) in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood.
“Shelter the Homeless is no longer pursuing the Brooklyn Avenue site as an overflow shelter,” Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
In reaction, the VOA is hitting pause. Its immediate plan is to keep using the building to help people withdraw from substances — at least for another year and maybe for many years to come.
Here’s a look at what led to the sale and the public frustration that surfaced when it became public, as well as the options for the building going forward.
The VOA’s plan is to move some of its functions into a new Redwood Road campus near 1800 South. This would include administrative offices, a counseling center and up to 150 detox beds.
When that happens, the Brooklyn Avenue site, which now serves up to 80 people, may not be needed. The original plan was for the VOA to sell the Brooklyn Avenue building to Shelter the Homeless for $3 million to pay for the Redwood Road facility.
The plan was to actually use state funds. The Utah Homelessness Council would have provided $3 million it received from the sale of a large homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City to support this real estate deal.
Starting in winter 2022 and then moving forward, Shelter the Homeless would have used Brooklyn Avenue as an overflow shelter.
The proposed transaction didn’t go through much of a public process, not nearly what took place when three homeless resource centers were placed in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.
Many residents in the Ballpark area learned about it from a Tribune story, and they were not pleased. The neighborhood already has other services for homeless individuals nearby, including a shelter for young people. While the detox center hasn’t resulted in many problems in the neighborhood, these opponents feared that an overflow shelter would result in an increase in camping, drug use and crime.
“It seems perverse,” said Amy Hawkins, who leads the Ballpark Community Council, “to continue to site more homeless resources on a location that has a proven track record of lack of safety for people experiencing homelessness.”
A developer, George Hauser, has an affordable housing project planned across the street from the Brooklyn Avenue detox center. When he heard that it could become a homeless shelter, he pulled back.
Mendenhall, who sits on the Utah Homelessness Council, originally voted for the $3 million deal. She then yanked her support and took the unusual step of issuing a moratorium.
What about the VOA’s plan to expand detox?
The deal among the VOA, Shelter the Homeless and the state is dead. Finished. History.
On Tuesday, the Utah Homelessness Council, relying on other pots of money, approved $3 million for the VOA to continue its plan to create a new, expanded detox center on Redwood Road. With half coming from the state and the other half from philanthropists.
VOA President Kathy Bray said that the new building won’t be in operation until winter 2022 at the earliest.
Brooklyn Avenue, which has served as a detox center since 1986, will continue helping those who come in drunk or high to get clean in a supervised manner, often with clinical help. These people can stay as long as 30 days if they have agreed to get inpatient treatment at another facility.
“A high percentage of people in detox are also homeless,” Bray said. “It does help people to have a safe place to be and can be a first step toward sobriety.”
Bray said the VOA’s current plan is to keep using Brooklyn Avenue as a detox center and see if there’s enough demand to run this site and the new one on Redwood Road.
That’s enough of a reassurance that Hauser is moving forward with his affordable housing plan. He’s working through an environmental issue on the site, with hopes to start work on his proposed 238-unit development, called Bumper House, in the middle of next year.
“Our plan is to move ahead with our project,” Hauser said, making it “solely conditioned” on the VOA keeping the building as a detox center.
Bray is not making any long-term commitments.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to the future of that building quite yet. We could continue to operate it as a detoxification center if the need is there,” she said. “I’m not sure we could do it long term.”
If the VOA decides it doesn’t make sense to keep offering detox services at Brooklyn Avenue, that may spark another round of concerns from the state, the city and the neighborhood.
Options for Brooklyn Avenue
The Utah Homelessness Council gave the VOA $3 million to expand its detox program and in exchange it wants that Brooklyn Avenue site to remain helping people who are unsheltered, or it wants the VOA to pay back the money.
The council approved a deal Tuesday that lasts for 15 years. During that period, the VOA would have to work with the council if it changes the building’s purpose. If it sells the building, half the money would go to the state and the other half would go to the philanthropists working on Utah homelessness.
That raises the possibility that this building could be a homeless shelter.
“We don’t want to rule out an opportunity that may come up in the future,” said Hopkins, with Shelter the Homeless. “The facility is currently part of the homeless services system, and we’d like to keep it as part of the system. There are certainly no plans in the short term, though.”
For Brooklyn Avenue to become a shelter, the city would have to sign off, which at this point seems unlikely.
City Council member Darin Mano, elected last week to a full term representing the Ballpark neighborhood, supports the VOA continuing to use Brooklyn Avenue for detox.
“That site does not seem to be a cause of community concerns,” he said, “at least not what I’ve heard of.”
But Mano opposes using it as a shelter, even an overflow one for the winter.
“It doesn’t feel like a right location to shelter,” he said, “given the proximity to other resource centers.”
If the VOA doesn’t have a need for the building, Mano would like to explore turning it into a library, a community center, even a clinic.
“I’m interested in potentially trying to turn that into a community asset and a benefit,” he said, “whatever the case may be.”
That’s possible, Bray said. It is also possible to turn it into deeply affordable housing or maybe sell it for another purpose. But it doesn’t appear that any action will take place until at least 2023.