Sugar House Residents Clash With City Leadership Over Shelter Relocation

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Displaced persons wait in line outside the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen on Jan. 8, 2017.

Over 150 Sugar House and Salt Lake City residents voiced concern and outrage in a meeting held earlier this month over a recent decision by the mayor and City Council to build four new homeless shelters in the Salt Lake area.

The site that drew the most criticism was the 653 E. 2240 South location in Sugar House, which residents argued was a poor place to build a homeless shelter, and that doing so would be a detriment to the community.

Among the concerns voiced by the public were that the location is in a residential area and would be near an area heavily populated with single families. Placing a shelter in such an area would be unwise, community members argued and was an irresponsible move by city officials. Community members also chastised the Salt Lake City leadership for making neighborhood-affecting decisions behind closed doors — and not including the public in the decision-making process.

The meeting was emotional and, at times, hostile. One Sugar House resident went so far as to describe the mayor and council as “evil” and accused them of putting his neighborhood in physical danger.

Another resident, who has lived in Sugar House for 20 years and raised six kids in the process, scolded city leadership for not recognizing the concerns of community members.

“If this was happening in your neighborhood, you would be standing right here where we’re at,” he said, adding that the shelter would jeopardize the safety of his neighborhood. “I don’t want to see one child get hurt. I don’t want to see one person get hurt. I don’t want to see a child in the neighborhood pick up a needle off of the floor and stick themselves with it.”

The City Council and Mayor Biskupski remained silent during the meeting and refrained from providing comments or rebuttals of their own.

The situating and wellbeing of displaced persons has recently come into the limelight of Utah politics. Overall, homelessness in Utah went up seven percent between 2014 and 2015, reports show. More troubling, families experiencing homelessness increased 17 percent in the same timespan.

A few of the dozens of people who spoke voiced concern with the decrease in available beds in the recently proposed shelters. The Road Home, which currently houses 1,100 beds, is expected to close following the opening of the four new shelter, which is expected to hold 150 beds each. That is an overall decrease of 500 beds.

Just a month ago, a man, believed to be homeless, was found dead on a bench in downtown Salt Lake. Police officials say the man more than likely froze to death.

The four new shelter locations were chosen earlier this year as part of an effort to scatter homeless facilities in an effort to “lessen neighborhood impact” avoid the complications and inefficacies of larger, centralized shelters like The Road Home and St. Vincent de Paul.

Did the public play a role in the managing process? It’s complicated. Earlier this year, the Salt Lake City Council held “criteria meetings,” which were open to the public, to brainstorm characteristics that would make for preferable shelter locations. During these meetings, ideas were proposed and debated by members of the public and the larger community.

When it came to choosing the actual sites, however, the decision was made behind closed doors and without any community input.

The mayor and council, who announced the decision on Dec. 13, said they didn’t want to pit “neighborhood against neighborhood” by allowing the public to vote or have a say on the site locations. As a result, community members said they felt “blindsided” and “betrayed.”

“This was decided behind closed doors,” one woman, a resident of Sugar House, told the mayor and council. “Talk about transparency.”  She and other residents felt let down, she said and urged the representatives to rethink their decision. “Please reconsider. We elected you, we rallied behind you. Please do not sell us; the same constituents [who voted you in] can vote you out.”

When the sites were announced in December, the decision was said to be concrete and final. Since the meeting, however, that rhetoric has softened considerably. In an interview with reporters following the meeting, Mayor Biskupski suggested she and the board may be open to rethinking the 653 E. Simpson location. Additionally, Council Member Lisa Adams, who oversees the district the Simpson shelter would be built in, withdrew her support for the shelter.

“Last night in that meeting, all of the discussion was about Simpson, with one exception,” Adams said, at a meeting hosted by the Sugar House Community Council on Jan. 4. “I’d like to see us come up with a configuration that works with those [other] three sites.”

For residents, the fight is far from over. In addition to Tuesday’s meeting, the council held three separate sessions last week to allow for community output and what can only be described as venting. Other than formal meetings, the council hosted three community workshops on Jan. 11 to allow for “public input on building design, safety and security for people experiencing homelessness and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Homelessness is something that affects a wide array of individuals including men, women, children and students. According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, there are 58,000 homeless college students worldwide.

In December, The Chronicle reported on a homeless camp that was found on the U campus just outside the Marriott Library, one of many that have been discovered by students and officials over the years.

There are resources available for displaced students at the U. The Homelessness Task Force is an on-campus group dedicated to assisting struggling and vulnerable students. Through a four-step process, students can meet with a financial adviser, determine their needs and discuss an action plan.

More information about the Task Force can be found at asuu.utah.edu/displaced-students or by contacting 801-587-2269.

Connor Richards is the assistant opinion editor of The Daily Utah Chronicle. Formerly a news writer, he covers politics, social issues and student life. He has won both regional and statewide awards for his writing.

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