This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Last year, while looking for solutions to the growing problem of homelessness across the Wasatch Front, the Utah Legislature mandated the Midvale Family Shelter move from being a seasonal facility to one that provides services year-round.
While I opposed this legislation, preferring to allow the Midvale City Council to make their own determination as to what would be best for them, the Legislature approved the change despite the dissenting votes, myself being one of them.
Midvale City took the mandate it was given, and in seeking the best possible outcome for both shelter residents and residents/business owners in the surrounding areas, used a unique mechanism that has successfully facilitated cooperation and communication. A working group composed of many organizations including the city, law enforcement, transitional and support services, local business owners and the school district meets monthly to coordinate activities and assistance.
With the legislative change, the biggest challenge became what to do with the children during summer months. The Midvale Shelter was originally an overflow facility, necessary only during winter. Over the years its purpose changed to serve families, but it remained seasonal, so there was no need to provide structure and care beyond the regular school day for the school-age children. That changed when it began operating year-round.
As a member of the working group, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake, through the Midvale Club, came to the rescue. Using state money appropriated by the Legislature, the club created programs for the children during the summer months. Canyons School District offered their help as well by providing transportation to the Boys and Girls Club on district buses. LANDESK was able to participate in one of the programs, as were other local businesses and community members.
The legislation provided for a full-time police presence at the facility, which has worked remarkably well. The officer filling this position has taken on the responsibility of creating good relationships with staff and residents. For many, he has successfully changed the perception of the police as the enemy, and residents now often see him as someone who is on their side, helping to create a safer living environment. When disturbances occur anywhere near the shelter, the assumption generally is that the residents are the culprits, and Officer Chavez has been able to stand up for them when this isn't the case.
UTA, as part of the working group, has also been integral in helping to meet the transportation needs of those in the facility. Most of these individuals rely heavily on public transportation and, through their participation, UTA has been able to better understand their needs and challenges, making the agency more willing to assist in addressing them.
United Way, Workforce Service and the Family Support Center all have services catering to those residing at the Midvale Family Shelter. Most are there only temporarily, with the average stay less than two months. The goal is to help individuals transition into affordable housing and stable jobs. Through the working group, these organizations are able to coordinate their activities and better avoid duplication of services.
None of this is to say that no more problems exist; there is more that we can, and will, do. But the communication and coordination that has come about as a result of this working group has helped to make the best of a difficult situation. Property owners have had a venue to convey concerns, and community leaders have been able to engage in an ongoing dialogue with those responsible for making decisions and assisting in solving problems.
Many in the community have expressed that having an officer on-site has had a positive impact on safety in and around the facility. When he leaves, though, issues increase. I would highly recommend the Legislature fund another full-time officer at the shelter to further increase safety.
As other communities look for the best way forward after the most recent shelter announcements in Salt Lake, they would do well to look to the Midvale Family Shelter and mimic the pattern that has been adopted. Good communication and responsiveness to the inevitable challenges will go a long way in allowing these necessary services to function most effectively.
Rep. Bruce Cutler is beginning his second term in the Utah Legislature. He lives in Murray and works as the STEM Education Outreach coordinator for LANDESK.