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Salt Lake County leaders on Saturday again faced a storm of objections from residents of West Valley City and South Salt Lake protesting five proposed sites for homeless shelters.
"You need to get off your bus and come walk with me," West Valley City resident Julie Erickson told Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams at an open house Saturday at the Utah Senate building to discuss the sites, announced earlier this month.
Erickson echoed the objection of many residents since the Legislature tasked the county with choosing a final site for a state committee to review: The five proposed sites are in areas that already struggle with poverty and crime.
"I'm a high school dropout. My parents made it to seventh grade. That's what the neighborhood is," Erickson said of Chesterfield, the neighborhood where she has lived her whole life and where the three West Valley City sites have been proposed. "It used to be a tent city. We tore down the last house that had a dirt floor just two years ago. We worked so hard to get this far. Since I was 9 or 10 years old, I have fought for that neighborhood."
Erickson told McAdams: "For you to drop this on us I've lost sleep over this. I'm sick over this."
Crowds gathered around McAdams and other county officials as hundreds of people milled around the Senate cafeteria with signs and stickers, organizing further protests and filling out comment forms provided by the county.
"I feel like lower income communities are being targeted," said West Valley City resident Maria Gutierrez.
McAdams shook his head and told Gutierrez, "That's not the case."
The county has been studying homelessness reforms for two years, McAdams said. The top priority in choosing shelter sites was to access to downtown Salt Lake City, where health and employment services for homeless people are centered.
"These sites were perfect until we started hearing from the public," he said. "So we need to have a public airing."
"We aren't against the homeless," said Abdul Afridi, who lives in West Valley City and owns businesses in West Valley and South Salt Lake. "We need a place for the homeless that is close to services. The sites they picked don't bring a solution."
Holly Peterson, whose family owns The Brokerage window supplier less than a block from the proposed shelter site at 3091 S. Main St. in South Salt Lake, agreed with Afridi.
"They obviously have a plight, and we're sympathetic to that," Peterson said. "But it's the people who prey on them, the people who follow them."
Peterson's husband, Scott Drews, told McAdams, "If they're going to hang out in front of businesses … so many South Salt Lake businesses are going to close down because of it."
McAdams said splitting the homeless population into multiple locations will limit the scale of the impact.
"They're not going to hang out there," McAdams told Drews and Peterson. "The resource center is going to be different from the one downtown."
Residents of West Valley City and South Salt Lake repeatedly said they didn't think either city was suitable for the shelter; some people were wearing stickers representing both towns. In a news conference before the open house, West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow said the selection process just weeks long, with a state-imposed deadline of March 30 would have played out differently if lawmakers and county leaders didn't see West Valley City and South Salt Lake as lesser than other communities in Salt Lake County.
"I wonder how quickly the governor would have vetoed that bill if the shelter had been slated for Cottonwood Cove or Federal Heights," Bigelow said.