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Hours after Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council announced the sites for four planned 150-bed homeless shelters in the capital city, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall told her colleagues she could not support the proposal.
Mendenhall said the site at 653 E. Simpson Ave. (2300 South) was not appropriate for what officials are calling a homeless-resource center because it abuts a neighborhood of single-family homes. Mendenhall's breaking of ranks caught the other six council members by surprise. Leading up to the announcement, the mayor and the council spent hours behind closed doors to arrive at the final four sites from a list of about a dozen.
The council was scheduled to vote on a resolution that would make the decision official on the evening of Dec. 13, but it put off the action until the mayor could attend. Biskupski was called away on a family emergency. The council will revisit the issue Jan. 3.
City officials say the decision is final. And despite a firestorm of complaints, Biskupski is not budging.
"We understand the consternation," said the mayor's spokesman, Matthew Rojas. "The mayor and the council will have the opportunity to explain the process. ... These are the best four sites in the city and people will become more accepting of them."
The other named sites are 131 E. 700 South, 275 W. High Ave. (1400 West) and 648 W. 100 South.
The Sugar House Community Council has not asked the mayor and council to reconsider the Simpson Avenue site, said First Vice Chairwoman Judi Short, because it was told the site selections were nonnegotiable.
"We've asked the mayor and council to come to the community council meeting on January 4 for questions and answers," Short said. "We are going to take the tack of how can we make this an asset to our community?"
Because the Simpson Avenue location is now the site of Lit'l Scholars Learning Center, Short said the community council will ask that a new resource center there include a day care for the general public.
They mayor's office and council offices have heard from scores of residents, mostly with negative comments. But Mendenhall and Councilwoman Lisa Adams have been at the center of the firestorm surrounding the Simpson Avenue decision, receiving a torrent of personal emails and phone calls. Although the Simpson Avenue location is in Adams' Council District 7, the boundary line for Mendenhall's District 5 is only three blocks away.
Adams said she has never before been called some of the names directed at her and some emails were threatening. Mendenhall, too, has had insulting emails and "creepy" phone calls.
Despite that, Adams went door to door in the neighborhood the day after the site announcement in an effort to explain that council members were pushing for a women-only shelter in their neighborhood. It was a tough sell.
At a Liberty Wells Community Council meeting Dec. 14, angry residents told Mendenhall they were not only disappointed in the site selection, but also were outraged that the decisions were made without public involvement.
Despite all that, Adams said Tuesday that there will be no reconsideration of the announced sites, including Simpson Avenue.
"We are going forward. I know the Legislature is expecting us to stick with these four sites," Adams said. "And the mayor has been emphatic that this is it."
Earlier this year, lawmakers set aside $9.2 million for new shelters and increased homeless services.
Advocates hope that legislators will earmark similar amounts in 2017 and 2018. Additional funding is tied to the city and Salt Lake County making progress toward new facilities.
Adams and Councilman Charlie Luke said they will push for a women's shelter on Simpson Avenue to assuage fears that a resource center there would lead to a chaotic scene like that on downtown's Rio Grande Street surrounding The Road Home shelter, which houses up to 1,062 people.
Luke said Tuesday that the council knew that Simpson Avenue would be a hot-button site. It is more suitable than the others for a women's shelter or a women's and children's shelter because it is in a residential setting, he said. "We owe it to residents to have something that fits into their neighborhood."