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Sugar House Journal

Frustration boils to surface over homeless center site choice

Jan 20, 2017 13h26 ● By Travis Barton

: Mayor Jackie Biskupski addresses Sugar House residents about the planned homeless resource center to be built at 653 E. Simpson Ave. during the Sugar House Community Council on Jan. 4 at the Sprague Library. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]


More than 250 residents squeezed into Sprague Library’s basement on Jan. 4 to express their support, concern or outright anger about the planned homeless resource center to be built at 653 E. Simpson Ave. in Sugar House.

“Due process wasn’t done properly,” said resident Richard Davis before adding, “nobody wants it here and the worst part is we weren’t even asked.”

One hour of the night’s Sugar House Community Council meeting was apportioned for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski to share a statement and answer, along with her staff, questions from residents about the homeless center.

Biskupski said “the biggest issue so far, is people are just envisioning the shelter that exists today coming to your neighborhood” referring to The Road Home shelter at Rio Grande Street in downtown Salt Lake City.

Mary Thompson, who moved to nearby Lake Street a decade ago from Gateway, said she was frustrated at the city’s decision to put a homeless shelter in a residential area.

“I lived at Gateway, I understand what is going on at the homeless center down there…the reason I moved was to have family and raise kids away from that,” Thompson said.

Biskupski explained the centers will be very different.

“We have not done a good job of putting into your hands what this service model is and isn’t. We will make sure to do that moving forward,” Biskupski told the crowd.

The model being presented is a scatter site model with four separate locations of 150 person facilities. City officials said this allows for decreased concentration of people which should reduce criminal activity.

Another difference, Biskupski said, with the Simpson site is building accessibility will be restricted to one side rather than the three sides the Rio Grande location now has. The building’s design aims to have clear sight lines, lighting and visibility.

Each center will also be specific to a different demographic such as single women, men or families. The Simpson site is expected to be the family location.

Biskupski said residents should learn more about the system being set up which will connect people to all service providers. Social workers, new detox and rehabilitation centers and affordable housing programs are some of the initiatives used to encompass the needs for each of the centers.

Biskupski urged compassion for the homeless and viewed this plan as a means to stop the homeless cycle from infecting generations.

“We are talking about families that need to be embraced by us, that need a little bit of help,” Biskupski said. She added that they need to “break up the homeless population and stop subjecting them to easy access by drug dealers.”

“I know this is hard, but I also know what we have today can’t keep going,” Biskupski said. “It will crush our city. It already is, and we need your help. We either keep doing what we’re doing or we have some faith.”

Sugar House Resident Shane Stroud said he felt with the experimental nature of this model, it’s too much of a risk.

“You’re asking us to take a leap of faith. This isn’t a leap of faith, this is a gamble and the costs of that gamble are extremely high,” Stroud said. He added that if the center doesn’t work as officials intend, the repercussions could last decades.

Chris Sveiven lives 75 feet from where the shelter will be built. He said the city needs to acknowledge this is an experiment for helping the homeless.

“No one in this room wants you to fail in this, (but) almost everyone in this room believes that the Simpson Avenue site—by your own standards—was a poor choice, a bad decision, a rushed decision and a mistake. There is no room for failure in that neighborhood,” Sveiven told the mayor.

Much of the public’s consternation stemmed from what they felt was a “lack of transparency” with the city choosing the sites behind closed doors. Sveiven found out when news crews pounded on his door seeking his reaction.

“The way the city’s handled this, it’s building nothing but resentment from most of the community,” Sveiven said.

Tina Escobar-Taft, of the Sugar House Community Council, echoed those sentiments when she said while “we need a plan for homelessness…people in my neighborhood are concerned about the back-door way it was done.”

City officials have maintained they did the process to avoid pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods and that it wasn’t an easy decision for them.

“A process that would pit different communities in our city against each other and tear our city apart as we try to affect change, was not something we felt comfortable doing,” Biskupski said. “And I note that decision is not resting well with you.”


Choosing Simpson Avenue

David Litvack, deputy chief of staff to the mayor, explained that as part of the scatter site model requires disbursement of locations and Simpson was one of three potential locations east of 200 East. He also noted that Washington, D.C. is doing something similar putting a center in each district of the city.

Of the $12 million set aside by the city for the four sites, $7 million was used on the Simpson site. A property where the owner, Forest Company, was paid $300,000 to resolve a lawsuit against Utah Transit Authority relating to the adjacent S-Line construction.

Councilwoman Lisa Adams, who represents the district where the Simpson site is located, has said she would like to see plans whittled to three sites instead of four removing the Simpson site. That idea has met little support from the mayor and council.

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, whose district lies a few blocks away from the site, favors choosing a new site rather than reducing it to three.

Adams wrote in her monthly newsletter email to District 7 residents she initially supported the choice of site with the understanding it would be used for families or single mothers.

“Since the announcement, I heard from scores of District 7 residents,” she wrote. “Overwhelmingly, there has been opposition to this site, not because we are not a caring community, but because there seem to be too many uncertainties.”

While Simpson is the only site in a residential area, it’s one of the main reasons it was chosen, Biskupski said.

“One thing we learned from service providers is that children need to be in a community setting when they are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “We have to look out for them.”

Adams wrote in her newsletter that “it is a challenge to find the balance between helping those in our community who are in desperate need of assistance, and respecting and protecting homes and businesses.

Residents were also concerned about businesses being uprooted because of the center.

Businesses being replaced by the homeless shelter are Lit’l Scholars Learning Center, Dancing Cranes Imports, Sherman Kendall Academy of Beauty Arts and Sciences and Fitness on 7th gym.

Litvack said the city is committed to helping those businesses find relocation within Salt Lake City.

Not everyone is against the shelter coming to Sugar House. One resident took a quick straw poll on who wanted the center and who didn’t. A strong majority said no while a smattering of people raised their hands for yes.

One of those in favor, Sugar House resident Christopher Thomas, asked the mayor what they could do to help.

“This is going to be a challenge for our neighborhood, but I think we can welcome these people,” Thomas said, a former member of the Sugar House Community Council. 

Adams invited residents in her newsletter to contact the Mayor’s office or email [email protected] to share their thoughts.