Concerned about the fast-approaching winter, the Salt Lake City Council approved a plan Tuesday to turn a North Temple motel into an overflow homeless shelter.
But in doing so, the council expressed its deep frustration that other cities are not doing more to help the unsheltered and that this temporary refuge from the cold is being placed in the economically disadvantaged west side for a second year in a row.
“I am frustrated beyond belief. We are the ones and our residents are the ones that bear this burden,” said Council Chair Amy Fowler. “It sometimes feels as if our compassion is taken advantage of.”
And yet, Fowler voted to allow the shelter, finding it unacceptable to let people who are homeless freeze on the streets.
The council voted 5-2 to allow a temporary shelter at the Ramada at 1659 W. North Temple St., doing so at the request of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, which is responsible for finding enough shelter beds. This group said it considered four locations in three cities before once again turning to Salt Lake City.
The coalition said the 250 beds offered at the Ramada, combined with hotel vouchers and smaller temporary sites, will be enough to get through this winter.
“After careful review of multiple sites, it was determined the North Temple facility would best meet the needs of those we serve at this time,” the coalition said in a statement. It added, “We know the neighborhoods in the vicinity have faced many pressures over the years and we look forward to working with the community as we serve our most vulnerable residents this winter.”
Mayor Erin Mendenhall has repeatedly asked other cities and Salt Lake County for more help serving people who are without homes. The mayor even set aside $1 million in federal coronavirus aid to support an overflow shelter anywhere in the county, a move she hoped would entice another city to volunteer.
That didn’t happen.
Mendenhall supported the council’s decision Tuesday but also said there’s a growing weariness among capital city leaders.
“I’m frustrated,” she said, “how disproportionately and largely unsupported the efforts of our city are to bring relief to the statewide homelessness crisis.”
Mendenhall has placed a moratorium on permanent homeless shelters in Salt Lake City for six months, but she said she left a door open to adding a temporary shelter.
“Despite the fact that our city already hosts far more than its fair share of homeless services,” she said, “I think that our city’s residents would rather have people with a shelter option than seeing people with nowhere to go, freezing and dying on our streets.”
Salt Lake City has hosted a temporary overflow shelter each of the past two winters. Last year it was at the old Airport Inn, on North Temple, which continues to be used for homeless services. The year before that, it was set up in an old Deseret Industries in Sugar House.
The city also has allowed overflow beds at a Salt Lake City dining hall operated by Catholic Community Services of Utah.
These beds are in addition to the 700 beds available for the people who can stay at three Salt Lake County resources centers, two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake. There also is a family shelter for 300 people in Midvale.
The Ramada is at the corner of North Temple and Redwood Road and it is attached to a thriving business. The Star of India restaurant is part of the complex and the owners just heard about the plans.
“I know we’ll make it,” owner Param Kaur said, “but it is just shocking.”
Her restaurant has moved twice before, but she loves the spot on North Temple and worries about how an overflow shelter may affect her business. She thought earlier that the motel would be refashioned into apartments.
The two council members who opposed the temporary shelter were Victoria Petro-Eschler and Ana Valdemoros. It was Petro-Eschler’s first full meeting as a council member and the vote was on a temporary shelter not just in her district, but four blocks from her home.
She said voting for this would be failing her neighbors.
“The emergency shelter is absolutely a necessity,” Petro-Eschler said. “This location, however, is absolutely unacceptable.”
She spoke about the immigrant-run restaurants in the area and the schools nearby.
“There’s no way,” she said, “to ask my neighbors and this community to take on this burden with any sense of justice.”
Valdemoros said the city has been forced into a corner by such a late request for a winter shelter, and she had strong words for the coalition making the request.
“I find it insulting that the providers will shy away from insisting that other cities do their part,” she said, “and take on some of their responsibility.”
Valdemoros said those providers rejected other locations because it would economically hurt those undisclosed areas, but such concerns don’t seem to apply to Salt Lake City’s west side.
Former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who is a developer with properties in the area, spoke out against the plan, as did Lucy Cardenas, the owner of Red Iguana.
“I walk my neighborhood daily, and I don’t always like what I see,” she said. “Enough is enough on the west side.”
The City Council encouraged the city to offer economic development assistance to the Star of India and other businesses in the area.
The council also required Shelter the Homeless, which will run the overflow shelter, to put a fence around the part of the building not used by the restaurant. This is intended to create a single entrance and exit, stop people from gathering in the parking lot, and protect the Star of India’s business.
The council is requiring that Shelter the Homeless develop a 24/7 security plan. It set a cap of 250 unsheltered people who can stay at the motel and required minimum staffing levels and regular health care visits. Operators must inform the city if its staffing levels dip or if it accepts more than 250 people because of an extreme weather event. That reporting was requested by Petro-Eschler.
The temporary shelter must close by April 15.
One action the City Council didn’t take was providing any funding for the overflow shelter — despite Mendenhall’s previous recommendation to provide $1 million. The council will consider that at a meeting after Thanksgiving. At this time, council member Darin Mano opposes that idea. He said other governments should fund the shelter, because the city will need that money for its own purposes, including providing more police support in the surrounding blocks.