Amy J. Hawkins: Proposed overflow shelter not good for the homeless or the Ballpark neighborhood

Legislature should reject plan to turn detox center into a shelter without services.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A few of the remaining campers warm themselves by the fire under the freeway over pass, on the last night of Camp Last Hope, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Without informing residents or business owners in the area, the Utah Homelessness Council has decided to locate another homeless shelter in the Ballpark/Central 9th neighborhood of Salt Lake City. It was a decision that only came to light through a Salt Lake Tribune article from Aug. 25.

We are grateful for The Tribune’s coverage, but finding out about the situation in this way highlights the flawed process to site a new homeless overflow shelter. Without community engagement, the council did not have enough information and consequently made the wrong choice. A new low-barrier overflow shelter on 252 W. Brooklyn Avenue will not serve the interests of people experiencing homelessness, would-be residents seeking affordable housing, or the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s tempting to characterize pushback from neighborhood residents and businesses who are not in favor of an overflow shelter at this location as merely a group of uncaring, hateful people screeching, “NIMBY!” The reality is much more complicated.

It’s important to note that the low-barrier overflow shelter that the Volunteers of America, Utah (VOA) and Shelter the Homeless are proposing for 252 W. Brooklyn Avenue is not a Homeless Resource Center (HRC). Documents from the Utah Homelessness Council make it clear that this location will serve the “unsheltered population camping on streets, individuals resistant to HRCs,” and this location would only provide basic services. This shelter would operate quite differently from a resource center and as a low-to-no barrier overflow shelter, will have a more significant and negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood than a similarly-sized HRC.

Salt Lake City’s District 5 has already experienced a 250% increase in homicides in 2020. Within the district, our Ballpark neighborhood specifically has seen four homicides of people experiencing homelessness in 2020 and 2021.

Why would the state continue to place additional homeless services in a neighborhood already failing to cope with the public safety concerns surrounding homelessness? And why would it do so with no notice or public engagement?

The proposed facility location also risks 238 units of affordable housing planned for a site directly opposite the overflow facility on Brooklyn Avenue. The affordable housing is part of two side-by-side apartment projects and has already received approval by Salt Lake City Planning Commission. Together the projects will bring 525 rental units to the neighborhood a block away from TRAX, 238 of them at affordable rents, adding the kind of transit-oriented housing density our city planners have been advocating. However, if the proposed overflow shelter is sited at 252 W. Brooklyn Avenue, the developer has indicated that financial backing for both projects will fail, and those 238 units of affordable housing will vanish. We should not be undermining plans for affordable housing.

When advocating for approval of the Youth Resource Center in 2014, the VOA stressed the importance of keeping the adult population experiencing homelessness separated from an at-risk youth population. Yet this proposed shelter is within two blocks of the VOA Youth Shelter and the SpyHop youth digital media arts center. The planning commission staff report from 2014 about the VOA Youth shelter detailed the dangers of exposing youth experiencing homelessness to other populations engaged in risky behaviors.

People experiencing homelessness who are part of the HRC-resistant population will not necessarily be seeking treatment. Many will still be engaged in the height of their addictions. We need to protect our city’s already vulnerable youth population from predation by adults by physically distancing the two groups.

This project is not equitable; it will disproportionately impact underserved at-risk youth and undermine affordable housing plans. Therefore, we urge the state and VOA to reconsider their plans for the Brooklyn Avenue Detox Center, and advocate that the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee vote against funding its purchase.

Amy J. Hawkins

Amy J. Hawkins, Salt Lake City, is chair of the Ballpark Community Council and a candidate for Salt Lake City Council District 5.