SALT LAKE CITY — After standing firm for months in the face of controversy on their plan to build four new homeless resource centers, Salt Lake city and county leaders announced a big change of plans Friday.
Only two shelters will be built in Salt Lake City — with a third to be placed elsewhere in Salt Lake County.
Joined by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced the city is abandoning two previously selected sites, including the controversial Sugar House location on Simpson Avenue. The site closest to the existing downtown Road Home shelter at 648 W. 100 South was also dropped.
That means the shelters planned for 275 W. High Ave. and 131 E. 700 South will be larger, capped at 200 beds instead of 150.
"I want to stress that while there is a change in locations, the principals behind these resource centers remain the same," Biskupski said. "These centers are spaces of hope, being built to help those most in need access treatment and resources to put them on a path to independence and a life reinvented."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams joined Biskupski to make the announcement, committing to an open public process to select a third site somewhere in the county. A site recommendation, he said, will be made by March 30.
Friday's announcement also included a first-ever hard date to close the Road Home. Hughes said the 1,100-bed facility will close its doors by June 30, 2019.
"That means there's a lot of work to do between now and then," Hughes said. "We have to have these resource centers up and running."
It's the second time city leaders have altered their stance on how many shelters will be built to break up and separate the population served at the Road Home's troubled downtown shelter on Rio Grande Street.
In something of a showdown last fall, Biskupski, the City Council and House Speaker Greg Hughes huddled behind closed doors before announcing to reporters the city would build four, 150-bed shelters instead of two with a 250-bed capacity, in order to quell City Council worries that a 250-bed facility would have too big an impact on neighborhoods.
Friday's change came after months of outrage from Sugar House residents fearing the Simpson Avenue site would have catastrophic impacts on their single-family neighborhood. They also heavily criticized city leaders for making the decision behind closed doors.
"No one today will say this process has gone as expected," Biskupski said. "This hasn't been an easy process because this is not an easy problem to solve."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, compared the process to "keeping jackrabbits on a flatbed truck."
Hughes quipped: "That sounds easy" compared to what state, county and city leaders have endured to reach consensus on the issue.
"It's been absolutely miserable," Hughes said. "This has been the best moment from the time we decided to do something and get this done."
When reporters asked if the change was a result of outcry from Sugar House residents, Biskupski said, "every discussion brings to light opportunities and a willingness to create a path forward."
"And that's exactly what happened," she said.
The mayor's voice then strained with emotion as she choked back tears.
"This has been hard," she said, "but a path worth taking. And there is no question we are heading in the right direction in a unified fashion."
The news was met with mixed emotions from Salt Lake City residents and City Council members — who said they weren't involved in the decision finalized Thursday night.
City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she learned of the details of the plan the same time as the public, leaving her with "mixed feelings."
Though Mendenhall said she was initially "shocked" that the council hadn't been given a seat at the table during the discussion, she said she understood it would be "logistically difficult" for the full council to be a part of the last-minute decision.
"I'm encouraged the city and county are recognizing the need for services to be spread throughout the region and we're talking about shelters outside of the city," she said.
City Councilmen Charlie Luke and Stan Penfold said they received a call from Hughes Thursday informing them of the decision. While City Council members had initially fought to cap the facilities at 150 beds, Luke and Penfold said they were supportive of the new plan.
"It would have been nice to know a little bit earlier, but I think the end result is good," Luke said.
Penfold said he's "intrigued" by the plan, acknowledging the decision as one that had to be made by the mayor's administration to advance the difficult issue.
"I'm happy to see us moving forward," he said.
While Mendenhall worried that the increased size of the shelters at the remaining sites may increase pushback from those neighborhoods, she said she was happy to see the city abandon the Sugar House site.
"It became less and less of a viable site, from not only the public reaction but the costs," she said. The Simpson Avenue site's $7 million price tag was revealed to the City Council after the site had been selected.
On nearby Green Street where many houses have lawn signs protesting the planned shelter on Simpson Avenue, resident Michael Lobb was thrilled.
“It’s great. I’m glad they finally listened to us,” he said.
Nothing about the selection of the Simpson Avenue site made sense, he said.
“I’m glad they heard what we said and they will make a better move forward with what they choose to do,” Lobb who has lived in the neighborhood since 1994, said. “It just takes a lot of concern away. The neighborhood as a whole has been supportive of trying to help the homeless but in a way it doesn’t affect the neighborhood in such a negative way."
Landowner Robert Breeze, who spearheaded the "No Site on Simpson" protest group, said he's "grateful that our neighborhood efforts paid off."
"This removed a tremendous psychological burden from so many people," Breeze said, thanking city, county and state leaders.
But concerns intensified for neighbors of the remaining sites.
Warner Larsen, owner of Diamond Electric Motor and Tool near the 275 W. High Ave. site, said the news of a larger shelter is discouraging.
“They’re going to do what they want,” said Larsen, who has operated the business since 1952. “I’d like to see the city buy me out and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it,” he said.
Jill Astin, who works at the business with her uncle, said a larger shelter deepens her concerns about her safety and risk to business.
“I feel like I’m not going to feel safe anymore,” she said. “I’m going to get a concealed weapons permit. I’m going to start packing. Several people around here feel the same way. Think about the people who just leased those new apartments. Now they have to live next to a shelter?”
McAdams said the county has agreed to "step up and facilitate a broader process" to select a third site because "it's not right for Salt Lake City to carry the burden" alone.
Acknowledging the public outcry Salt Lake City faced for making its site selections behind closed doors, McAdams said it's important that the county take public input on a variety of options before making it's recommendation to the Statewide Homelessness Coordinating Committee, led by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox by March 30.
When asked if a little over a month will be enough time to gather public input and make a selection, McAdams said he's "a little bit" worried, "but we have to work within real time constraints."
"The stars have aligned right now," the mayor said. "There's a political will to address this problem now. Those winds can change from time to time, so we're anxious to work with the leadership we've got right now to get this done."
Murray Mayor Ted Eyre joined McAdams to offer his help to facilitate discussions with other cities in the county, though he did not say there is a site in Murray under consideration.
"Murray is involved and committed to carrying out this dialogue," he said. "We welcome this opportunity. It's an obligation we have to our communities, to our state, and to our nation. We want to do everything we can in a small way to reach a solution."
As for the Road Home's closure, the decision to close it by June 2019 is one that had clashed with McAdams' initial resistance to a hard closing date, arguing the shelter should only close when its population had been completely diverted to new shelters or programs.
McAdams said the county's service model, combined with affordable housing and treatment programing, should be able to draw down the Road Home's population by the deadline, assuming the Legislature agrees to continue funding services under its $27 million, three-year agreement reached last year.
"That gives me confidence we can actually responsibly close the Rio Grande shelter," McAdams said.
The announcement comes as the Road Home is dealing with all-time high demand for emergency shelter, said executive director Matthew Minkevitch.
“The facility we’re operating is feeling the strain,” he said.
The Road Home is on track to serve 8,900 people this fiscal year, which ends in June, he said. By comparison, the nonprofit organization served some 10,000 over a five-year period a decade ago.
The 300-bed family shelter the Road Home operates in Midvale is part of the reconstituted plan announced Friday.
“We’re eager to learn more how we, as a community, will address growing demand for emergency shelter and deeply affordable housing, for which there is a serious shortage. We need to get a lot more people out of shelter and make sure the facilities created meet the growing demand,” he said.
Friday’s announcement is another important milestone in the state’s efforts to better serve people experiencing homelessness, Minkevitch said.
“I think that anyone who spoke today would acknowledge that this remains a work in progress," he said. "On behalf of our agency, we’re game. We’re in. We’ll do our part."
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez