SALT LAKE CITY — When tempers flared Wednesday in a Central City Neighborhood Council meeting over the 131 E. 700 South site planned for one of the city's four new homeless resource centers, John Wilkes couldn't take it anymore.
He told the room full of more than 50 neighbors that he once lived the life of a person struggling with homelessness, that he spent five years on the streets of Salt Lake City after he was laid off from his job and was booted from housing.
"I envy every single person that will benefit from these sites. This is a life-changing compassionate thing that (the city) is trying to do here," he said. "Listen to both sides and don't close your mind. What will make a difference is compassion, not anger."
His remarks were met with applause, but not until after Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski faced a barrage of frustrated comments from Central City residents that were skeptical of the city's plan and whether it will protect their neighborhood from drug and crime issues that plague the Rio Grande area.
"I'm losing all of my tenants because of this," said Ted Zaharias, who leases property to several businesses near the 700 South site. "We're going to have a nice big hole in our neighborhood because of what you guys have done."
The anger didn't stop there. Immediately after the Central City meeting at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, Biskupski and City Council members went to an even more intense Sugar House Community Council meeting at Salt Lake City's Sprague Library.
More than 250 residents packed into the library's community room, many overflowing into the hallway. Their remarks continued the frustrations shared at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, where more than 150 residents pleaded with Salt Lake leaders to reconsider the 653 E. Simpson Ave. site in Sugar House.
Biskupski said it's possible that the city could rethink the site, but at the time no city leaders had changed their minds.
"I know this is hard," Biskupski told Sugar House neighbors Wednesday night. "But I also know what we can't keep doing what we have today. It will crush our city. It already is. We need your help. We either keep doing what we're doing or we have some faith."
"It's not a leap of faith, it's a gamble," shouted one resident.
Biskupski, while assuring residents that she's hearing their concerns, also urged people to learn about the city's new model "with an open mind."
"We can't just blow this plan up and say it will never work and continue to live with what we have today. We know it isn't working. We know that it's killing people. We know it's creating chaos in our city."
While Sugar House residents were mostly united against the Simpson Avenue site, Central City attitudes were more split.
"People are very wary," said Michael Iverson, chairman of the Central City Neighborhood Council. "We've heard some people don't want it in their neighborhood at all, but we have heard from others, I'd say the majority, that understand the need for Central City to step up and do our part in this issue."
Sean Shoemaker, who lives near Liberty Park, was skeptical that the new model will be able to serve everyone, including those who struggle with mental illness or addiction and don't want help.
"What your model doesn't take into account is that not everyone always voluntarily goes into services," he said.
Biskupski said she understood those fears, disclosing that her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and often refused her medication or treatment. The mayor said once her mother began receiving care from providers that understood her illness, it made the difference.
"The system we are creating will connect people to all service providers," she said.
She urged residents to learn more about the service model the Salt Lake County Collective Impact initiative has spent the last two years developing — one that incorporates two new detox and rehabilitation centers, affordable housing programs and other initiatives to support the city's four new resource centers.
"We have not done a good job of putting into your hands what this service model is and isn't. We will make sure that we do that moving forward," Biskupski said, attributing residents' fears to lack of certainty or understanding that the new centers will be dramatically different than the current Rio Grande shelter.
"That has been the biggest issue so far, is people are just envisioning the shelter that exists today coming to your neighborhood, and that is not what will be happening," she said
While many Sugar House residents are poised to continue fighting tooth and nail against the Simpson Avenue site, Central City neighborhood chairman Michael Iverson has said his area is greeting "the challenge with optimism."
He said he's working other neighborhood councils to create "community oversight boards" to help shape how the new centers are incorporated into the neighborhoods while also working to mitigate their impacts.