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State And Local Efforts To Combat Growing Homelessness Issue In Utah

University of Utah

After protests from community members and hundreds of letters sent to elected officials, state lawmakers and local leaders on Friday announced an updated plan for addressing homelessness in Salt Lake County.

In December, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced the site selection of four new homeless resource centers within the capital city. The Simpson Ave. location in the Sugar House neighborhood received negative feedback from many residents in the area, who said they felt blindsided by the news and excluded from the selection process.

At Friday’s press conference, the Simpson Ave. site was removed from the lineup of resource centers. When asked if the decision was made due to pressure from the Sugar House community, Biskupski said conversations with different groups informed the action.

"This is truly a collaborative effort, and every discussion brings to light opportunities and a willingness to create a better path forward," Biskupski said. "And that’s exactly what happened."

Only two of the four original sites remain: the location on High Ave. by the Smith’s Ballpark and at 131 East 700 S., the current location of a Deseret Industries thrift store. The centers will hold 200 beds each, an increase from the originally determined 150. One center will be designated specifically for single women, while the other will serve both men and women.

As part of the plan, The Midvale family shelter, which houses 300 men, women and children, will serve as a fourth shelter and remains designated for family use. An official from the Department of Workforce Services said families looking for overflow shelter will also be able to receive vouchers from the Department for motel stays.

A new resource center will also be built outside of city limits, but within Salt Lake County. County Mayor Ben McAdams said he plans to have the site determined by the end of March and intends to involve the public in the decision. McAdams hopes residents forgo “not in my backyard” arguments that caused difficulties in Salt Lake City.

"If we each shoulder a small portion of that, it’s a burden we can each bear individually," McAdams said. "We don’t want to ask just one city to bear the entire brunt of this burden. We’re asking people to look for the best inside them and to be willing to step forward. We also want people to understand that a homeless services resource center is very different from the emergency shelter we see in downtown right now. The services are going to be different. We are committed to mitigating any negative impact that might come to the community to make this work. So we’re asking cities to step up to the plate."

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican from Draper, stressed justice reform legislation as a way of addressing the criminal element present in the Rio Grande district, where homeless services such as the Road Home shelter and the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall are located. Hughes says there are many pieces to fall in place to solve homelessness in the state, but legislators, law-enforcement agencies and service providers have “the political will to get this done.”

"We have to have these resource centers up and running," Hughes said. "We have to have the law enforcement component working as it should. We have justice reform, a justice reform initiative. We passed an important piece of Medicaid expansion legislation last year, but we were not able to get the waivers that were required. We have those dollars that were set aside last year, and we’re repurposing those dollars for behavioral health, for the side of those that are sick and those that need care. We are not gonna arrest our way out of this."

The legislature, in its final two weeks, is working to finalize a funding plan for the new resource centers. At Friday’s press conference, Hughes also announced a hard-close date for the downtown Road Home shelter. The homeless service provider, which currently serves up to 1100 homeless people per night, will close its doors on June 30, 2019.