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Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson gathered about a dozen homeless and recently homeless residents outside Mayor Jackie Biskupski's office Friday, demanding that the mayor act to provide emergency shelter and laying the blame at her feet if another person dies from the cold.
"The next person who dies of exposure on the streets of Salt Lake City will be a result of there being no plan, no implementation and no overflow shelter to provide for the safety of the people who are homeless in our city," Anderson said.
The current mayor, he added, should assemble cots in public buildings and open them up for emergency refuge for the untold numbers of homeless huddling together downtown.
"We cannot have one more person die, one more homeless person dying on the streets of Salt Lake City. It is preventable," Anderson said. "We can rise to that in this community, but right now we're not."
The mayor had promised to give the City Council a plan to deal with the needs of homeless people, Anderson said, but has yet to deliver.
Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the plan for providing shelter is already in place. The City Council and the mayor provided $170,000 to keep open the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall in the Rio Grande area as an overflow shelter for about 80 people. Another $100,000 is still available to rent hotel rooms if the shelters reach capacity.
"What we've been told by the service providers is, to date this winter, with the combined Midvale Road Home and the emergency space at St. Vincent's, we have not yet reached capacity," Rojas said.
The Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City and its family shelter in Midvale counted 1,409 clients on a recent night. The combined capacity of those two shelters is 1,400.
"So far the needs are being met," Biskupski told reporters. "We have funding readily available today for hotel rooms. ... We certainly can and will [spend that money] when those requests come in."
While there are people sleeping on the streets, Rojas said, nobody has been turned away from the shelters, and many of those people on the streets are there by choice.
That point was driven home Friday when two of the homeless men Anderson had brought to Biskupski's office interrupted his plea for shelters saying they don't want to go to the shelter.
"The shelter is madness, that's why we left," one of the men said. "I'd rather die than go back to the shelter."
A recent report by the Salt Lake County Collective Impact committee said it surveyed 550 people around The Road Home shelter. Sixty-nine percent said they lived in the shelter, while 21 percent said they camped outdoors.
Kimberly Gross spent two months in The Road Home shelter in 2015 before getting a temporarily rent-free apartment through a rapid-rehousing program. She is now on the brink of being evicted from her home because, she said, an autoimmune disease makes it impossible for her to work. It also makes living in the shelter risky, but she has been told the private rooms at the shelter are full because pregnant women are given first priority, she said, so she and her two teenage daughters might end up on the streets.
"We're just like anybody else," she said. I'm not somebody who is trying to live off the taxpayers. … I'm a person. I'm a human being. I'm a mother of two children. I'm not trying to take advantage of the system, but I'm struggling."
Alixzandra Smallwood and her daughter spent time sleeping under a bridge along the Jordan River in 2015 before getting into the Midvale family shelter, so she said she knows what it's like to be on the streets. She and her husband have an apartment now, but still would like to see more shelter space.
"Opening more shelters would help a lot of families and people who need to be sheltered," she said. "It's really cold outside."
Brigitte Romo Leroux has been staying in the shelter but last night visited her friend, who wasn't able to get space in the shelter and had to stay out in the cold.
"I was crying and praying all night, not just for him, but for all my guy friends and girlfriends who stay out there because they can't get a bed," she said. "The sad thing is they're good guys, they're young, they're beautiful and look how they're stuck here in this pitiful situation and look how they're getting treated."