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An advocate for homeless people has launched an online petition asking Mayor Jackie Biskupski to create more overflow shelter space for the hundreds of people now living on the streets of Salt Lake City.
The capital city is facing a homelessness crisis, and the shelters are full, according to the petition started by Ashley Hoopes.
"Yet the city has no plan in place for the hundreds of homeless who currently live along and around 500 West, or the many families who are camping or living in their cars, and will be seeking emergency shelter this winter," she states on the petition.
As of 10 p.m. Thursday, the petition at http://bit.ly/2gHGrcO had 651 signatures.
Hoopes noted that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are in the process of implementing long-term plans to mitigate homelessness.
"But in addition to that," she said, "we need an immediate short-term plan for the homeless who are facing the upcoming winter and need a temporary shelter solution for the next 120 days."
Recently, the City Council funded Biskupski's request for an overflow operation at St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall on Rio Grande Street that can accommodate up to 80 men. That space has been used annually for shelter overflow. But what used to be the 75-bed Midvale overflow shelter is now a year-round facility for homeless families. That's a net reduction of 75 overflow beds from last winter.
In an interview, Hoopes said she launched the petition after learning about six weeks ago that The Road Home shelters downtown and in Midvale are bulging at the seams and the space at St. Vincent is close to full every night.
Usually the shelters reach their peak clientele in January and February, according to Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home. Recently, however, the shelters set a record of 1,409 residents.
Hoopes said the current situation is dangerously lacking.
"I'm afraid people will die, including women and children," she said. "With things below freezing, people will die in Pioneer Park, they will die in City Creek Canyon, and they will die in our backyards."
Wednesday, Biskupski's office said that despite new data showing one in five homeless people interviewed downtown is living outside, new overflow space would not be created.
Salt Lake County's Collective Impact committee assessed 550 people in and around The Road Home Shelter on Rio Grande Street. Sixty-nine percent said they lived in the shelter, but 21 percent answered that they camped outdoors.
Some of them said they choose to live outdoors. Seven percent said they lived elsewhere and 3 percent did not answer.
In a prepared statement, the mayor said her administration will continue to monitor closely the need for emergency shelter space.
Nonetheless, City Councilman Derek Kitchen, whose District 4 encompasses the Rio Grande area, said Thursday the petition represents growing concerns about people living on the streets in sub-freezing temperatures.
The council, having taken note of the growing outdoor population, had been asking Biskupski since September for a broader winter plan for short-term overflow shelter space.
Kitchen pointed to overall economic conditions and other considerations, such as the opioid epidemic, that may keep the homeless population expanding. As such, he said, it's hard to understand why the administration is reluctant to seek more options.
"We are at the very beginning of winter and the fact that they are digging in their heels... is very troubling to me," Kitchen said. "We need to be looking forward to growth in homelessness."
Exhibit at The Leonardo examines children's homelessness. › B3