SALT LAKE CITY — As plans for homeless reform have taken shape, questions have lingered about how two 200-bed shelters in Salt Lake City and a third 300-bed shelter in South Salt Lake would serve the population currently living at the Road Home's nearly 1,100-bed downtown shelter.
Critics have worried the math wouldn't add up — that the 700 new beds wouldn't be enough and would leave 400 others unsheltered. Along the way, officials have said the gap would be offset by other programs meant to divert them from becoming homeless in the first place.
But Tuesday, even as the new homeless resource centers prepare to break ground this spring, Salt Lake City leaders worried the math may not add up afterall — and urged stakeholders to start discussing a backup plan.
Whether that means canceling the downtown shelter's state-mandated closure date of June 30, 2019, or setting up a new emergency shelter somewhere else, that discussion needs to be had, Salt Lake Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said.
"June of 2019 is very soon, and especially when it's government that is leading the conversation. I am getting increasingly uncomfortable that that conversation isn't already happening," Mendenhall said Tuesday during a council update on the homeless resource center programming from Karen Hale, Salt Lake County deputy mayor of community and external affairs.
"I think the commitment to the Road Home closure is unreasonable and unlikely," she said.
While Mendenhall called efforts to create more services and housing are "exceptional," she said she does not believe "it's going to reduce that increased need as our natural population grows."
"I think it's high time for us to confront the reality that the closure of the Road Home in June of 2019 was a political conversation and not one based in reality," she said.
And lifting the 200-bed cap on the Salt Lake City homeless centers won't be an option, Mendenhall added.
It's the latest bump in a process that has already left deep political scars for both Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City leaders, as communities have fought viciously against plans to site homeless resource centers in their neighborhoods.
Councilmen Derek Kitchen, Andrew Johnston and James Rogers also voiced concerns.
"We know this isn't enough, right?" Rogers said. "We know it's not going to be enough. And my worry is we're going to be back to square one — that we start talking about, 'We need another facility' ... I'm kind of concerned that it's going to be Salt Lake City again bearing that brunt, and how do we collaborate with other cities and the county to make sure that's not the case?"
Hale, when Mendenhall asked what will happen when beds fill up, acknowledged that's a "difficult question," but again referred to the county's Collective Impact Steering Committee's work to make homelessness "rare, brief and nonrecurring," and "divert" people from emergency needs and reduce the number of people needing shelter.
In an interview after the council meeting, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said she, too, has concerns and the question about potential need for more emergency shelter faces all stakeholders.
But, the mayor said, success of homeless diversion services are "out of the hands of the city" since they're managed by the county and the state, and the city is already doing its part by "allowing" two resource centers to be built in the city.
"I think (the council) was just reiterating, 'What is your plan? What is the overall strategy to make sure people land somewhere?" Biskupski said. "And there wasn't a very good answer. And that is concerning — it's concerning to me, it's concerning to the council ... and hopefully this (plan) will actually play out the way they think it will and the way they have told us it will."
If not — and if there's need for more emergency shelter beds — Biskupski said any additional shelter "won't be here" in Salt Lake City.
"Other communities will have to do their part," she said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who leads the county's collective impact on homelessness work, said in a phone interview later Tuesday that "this is the first we're hearing" of city concerns since state, county and city leaders announced a revised plan to build three new shelters instead of four. He noted that the county has made "a lot of progress" in programs, including more than 200 new treatment beds and Pay for Success programs.
"But if Salt Lake City is second-guessing that direction we're heading in, I guess now's a good time to know and we'll look to them to tell us what suggestions they have," McAdams said.
McAdams previously had resisted a hard closure date for the downtown shelter, arguing it should only close when its demand has been completely drawn down by the new model — clashing with Biskupski last year over the issue. City council members had also worried the hard closure would leave residents out on the street.9 comments on this story
At the time, a spokesman for Biskupski said she had "so much faith" in the new homeless model that by the time the centers are open, the demand for the downtown shelter will no longer exist.
"The Road Home closure date was a point that Mayor Biskupski vigorously advocated for, so if they are second-guessing whether that is appropriate, then we'll listen to their concerns if they want to go back on that," McAdams said.
McAdams added, however, that he believes funds are better spent on programs to divert people from homelenesses and help them "become stable and self-reliant" like job training, drug treatment and housing, rather than more emergency shelter.