Rob Wesemann and Jean Hill: Help us find a shelter for the homeless before winter sets in

It is understandable that Salt Lake City doesn’t want another shelter. But we need one somewhere in the county.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 23, 2020, file shows a winter overflow homeless shelter opened up in Sugar House for the season after it became clear the recently overhauled homeless resource system didn't have sufficient capacity.

As co-chairs of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, we have been striving to find short and long-term solutions to homelessness across Salt Lake County. Unfortunately, our long-term efforts are hindered each year by the need to locate, fund, staff and operate emergency overflow shelter with too little time and limited options.

In our third year of seeking temporary emergency housing sites, we find ourselves once again without sufficient overflow beds and winter mere weeks away. Thus, we plead with city leaders and residents across Salt Lake County, please join us in our efforts to house the unsheltered this winter.

As was recently reported, Salt Lake City pulled its support for a site we had identified as a potential long-term shelter option for emergency overflow (one currently used primarily by people experiencing homelessness for detoxification). In doing so, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall rightly lamented the disproportionate impact of homeless services on the city.

There is no question our capital city is the locus of most services and most of the homeless population of Utah. There is even less question the city needs other municipalities to engage more in the statewide work to end homelessness.

Last winter, three cities stepped up to ensure people who sought shelter could find it. Millcreek, South Salt Lake and, of course, Salt Lake City all overcame zoning and conditional use permit requirements to provide enough beds for winter overflow. This year, we face the same overflow needs, but the site in Millcreek is no longer available and Salt Lake City is unwilling to provide the needed zoning for another temporary emergency shelter.

Meanwhile, it is mid-September and, if we find a site in the next few weeks, zoning could take 30-90 days more, assuming a city is willing to grant a conditional use or emergency zoning change.

In other words, we need a city that is not Salt Lake City to come forward now 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. 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.

Millcreek was a refreshing exception, with not only an openhearted mayor but also neighbors of the temporary shelter who brought donations and care to the individuals seeking respite in their community. Our hope is the generous spirit that pervades our state will lead other cities to offer similar hospitality to people who have no options and must rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter.

Granted, locating temporary winter housing outside of Salt Lake City is complicated and more expensive for service providers and those served, primarily because it requires reliable transportation to and from the remote sites, but, as we saw in Millcreek last winter, these remote sites can lead to greater understanding of homelessness and the individuals experiencing it across the county.

The coalition is working with a special subcommittee of the Council of Governments to develop a larger pool of resources and support among the cities within Salt Lake County. But few mayors will open up vacant hotels or warehouses to the homeless without community support.

Thus, we encourage mayors and city and community council members to help us locate potential sites for temporary emergency housing, and we encourage community members to open their hearts and minds to those who are struggling to access the very basic need of shelter this coming winter.

Rob Wesemann | National Alliance on Mental Health Utah

Jean Hill

Rob Wesemann and Jean Hill are co-chairs of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.