This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
How do you sell a neighborhood on a homeless shelter?
For all the true progress made recently to get our collective arms around the problem of homelessness, this most vexing question threatens to unravel, or at least delay, the desperately needed solution.
Salt Lake City Council members are pushing back against the hurried effort to designate locations for two new shelters that would house 500 homeless people between them. They can't say this whole thing is hitting them by surprise, but they are understandably stressed by what has been a design-build process.
Salt Lake County, which funds most homeless services, and Salt Lake City, which faces most of the safety and neighborhood problems, formed committees of stakeholders last year to address the growing chaos in the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area. Those committees have progressed toward a model that emphasizes 1) keeping people in homes and out of shelters where possible, and 2) providing case management, mental health, job training and other services needed to get off the streets and stay off.
And in a Tribune op-ed a year ago, committee co-chairs Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer Depaulis identified a third prong in this changed approach:
"Other likely recommendations include moving from having one or two large shelters to several, smaller shelters that each serve specific groups (men, youths, the disabled, etc.), [and] locating facilities throughout the community … "
Since then, the Utah Legislature has committed more than $9 million, but it came with the proviso that the community show progress by identifying specific shelter sites this year. Meanwhile, that intent to break up the logjam on Rio Grande Avenue into "several, smaller shelters" that would be "throughout the community" has been reduced to an initial plan for two fairly large (about 250 people) shelters, both in Salt Lake City.
The City Council members are saying 250-person shelters are too big for any neighborhood to absorb. Some would like to look at breaking up the populations further into five 100-person facilities.
In a perfect world, five smaller shelters may be better, but it's not a perfect world. In fact, it's a world that is getting worse by the day. If the council wonders if it can find suitable sites for two shelters in the next couple of months, how long would it take to find spots for five?
In the meantime, things are not improving around Pioneer Park. Even after Salt Lake County and others came up with money to keep the family shelter in Midvale open through the summer, the main shelter downtown has backfilled well past capacity, including more families with children mixing with the hardest edges of society. The situation both inside and outside the current shelter puts innocent people in real danger.
So how to sell a neighborhood on a homeless shelter? By telling them it's not just a shelter. If they think they're just getting a smaller version of the Rio Grande spectacle, why would they go along?
These won't be mini-Rio Grandes. They will be clinics, counseling centers and job-training facilities. They will be mending people, not just warehousing them.
The council members are right to look out for their constituents, but they also have a duty to serve the larger community. This fast track was not created by a false urgency. We are in crisis. Whatever problems come with the new shelters, the current situation is much worse. Let's get on with it.