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West Valley City Journal

Why the welcome mat isn’t out for WVC homeless sites

Apr 03, 2017 11:05AM ● By Travis Barton

Mayor Ron Bigelow shares his frustration with reporters at an open house on March 21 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. A few days earlier Bigelow called on the governor to “step up and find some action. Not just talk and quietly in the backroom sign a bill.” (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Editor’s note: Press deadline for this story came on March 21. Any announcements or new information that was released after that date, such as a permanent site selection, could not be included in this story.

Five sites were announced as potential locations for a homeless resource center on March 10 by Salt Lake County with a sixth added on March 21. Three of them are in West Valley City and city leaders are not happy.

“We thought we’d be on the list, but three of the five in West Valley? Something was greased,” said Mayor Ron Bigelow.

As part of legislation passed in the session that ended on March 9, the county must make a site recommendation to the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee by March 30. The legislation, HB 441, also removed city officials from having any formal say on the matter.

The three sites in West Valley are at 1820 W. Printers Row and 2411 and 2249 S. Winston St. The other three are in South Salt Lake, not far removed from West Valley’s borders.

Active in voicing disapproval, city leaders and residents have adamantly opposed any shelter being sited in their city with a list of reasons why.

Process is too rushed

Salt Lake County announced five sites on March 10, eighteen days before it needed to recommend a site to the committee.

In contrast, West Valley City would require at least three to four weeks for any kind of land use decision, said City Manager Wayne Pyle, and that would be for something simple like dividing a half-acre lot to build a new house in the back.

“That’s imposed by the state for heaven’s sake, now the state comes back and takes away our land use authority in this case, and not only does that, but then says this is gonna happen in basically 21 days. I mean it’s actually ridiculous,” said Pyle, who has described the county’s process as “fake” and “unacceptable.”

Councilman Lars Nordfelt said rushing the process is not going to help the problem.

“It really takes time to make this decision right. This is a decision that has generational impact wherever it goes,” he said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams told frustrated residents at open houses in March they only had since mid-February to select sites and have had a committee working on solutions for two years now.

The committee has focused on the issue of homelessness and ways to fix and prevent it. City leaders feel the quickened pace of selecting sites is also an issue.

“Clearly we can do better than that as a city and so can they,” Bigelow said of the shortened selection process. “But when you’re in a hurry, you make decisions that are more to get it done than it is to solve the problem.”

Reasoning for the March 30 deadline was the $10 million appropriated by the state legislature for the county to build the center. McAdams told residents he’s just following the deadlines that were set for him.

Senator Daniel Thatcher, whose area incorporates West Valley City, said that money was appropriated for this purpose and will still be there after the deadline.

“If you don’t get [the money] right now, fine, it’ll still be there. Instead of rushing the process… press pause and get a little collaboration instead of ramming things onto the west side,” Thatcher said. Thatcher said he voted for the legislation under assurances from the county mayor’s office that the center wouldn’t be forced upon any city.

McAdams repeatedly told residents during open houses they are listening to their concerns. However, West Valley resident Shiloah Gilmore said the whole process has been backwards, listening to the public after making the choices.

“I think government wants us to believe in the system and the process (but) the way this has come about, the system has failed,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s a temporary failure meaning that there will be a better solution as we come together.”

The city already carries the burden

City leaders said this isn’t a case of “not in my backyard.” They maintain their backyardis already full.

WVC currently has 33,000 affordable housing units. More than any other city bar Salt Lake City.

Along with Salt Lake County Housing Authority and other non-profits, WVC helped build Kelly Benson apartments on 3600 West, which is permanent housing for the chronically homeless.

WVC has 2,200 mobile homes and 10,000 rental units at 80 percent median income.

“It’s unethical to ask our residents to carry even more. We happily carry our burden, but we can’t do it all,” Nordfelt said.

Bigelow said they shouldn’t pick two of the poorer cities in the county, but someplace with a stronger “economic base.”

“[Other cities] can afford to hire officers, they can afford to take care of it… I dream about what it would be like to have a tenth of the base that SLC has,” he said.

West Valley resident Chris Walker said if they’re going to make this a county issue, then it should be the whole county and not just one city.

“I’m tired of West Valley City being dumped on because everyone thinks it’s a dumping ground,” Walker said. “I would like to see what Salt Lake County is going to do to support the city of wherever they put it and see that it’s taken care of financially by the county, not by West Valley City cause we do not have the funds to do that.”

The area where the sites would be located is a place Nordfelt said the city’s worked hard to revitalize over the years.

Model of a homeless resource center isn’t proven

Many leaders and residents are worried a new shelter will bring the same drugs and crime going on at The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake City.

The new shelters will be, what are called, homeless resource centers. County leaders have said it will be different with the new design including on-site case managers, community and day-use spaces, food services and security space for a police officer and area to view security camera video.

But city leaders aren’t buying it.

“It’s complete vapor,” Pyle said of the service model. He said these resources being talked about are “great ideas and we’d love to see them implemented” but doesn’t feel they are fully formed with no plans, funds or specifics.

“In our mind what we have is this shelter being moved from downtown to West Valley or wherever with a lot of good intention, but not anything in terms of an actual plan to prove that it’s gonna be any different than where it is right now,” Pyle said.

Pyle said the city’s studied homelessness as an issue in other major cities on the west coast and close by and the first lesson they found was that “none of those cities have found a solution to reducing the homeless population itself.”

The mayor feels it is all talk and no action.

“We’re all reasonable people, and if it’s so great, why can’t you do it at Rio Grande right now? And prove to us that it works. We’ll line up asking for it, may even bid for it,” Bigelow said.

With two being built in Salt Lake City and every shelter set for around 200 beds, the design is to serve specific populations with a women’s, men’s and gender-segregated shelter. This is meant to make it possible to have smaller capacities at each facility.

Shaleane Gee, director of special projects, told residents at the open house that the center will be like an “emergency room facility. A resource center in the sense that it teaches you how to leave homelessness.”

Police Chief Lee Russo, whose previous experience includes working in Kentucky where a homeless shelter was placed, said every city says their shelter will be different.

“Why don’t they build the family shelter and the women’s shelter and leave the men in the Road Home,” Russo suggested. “And test the theory before they decide to build a facility in some other jurisdiction and find out whether or not it works.”

Gilmore doesn’t feel it’s a sustainable model.

“Sure it may be different but they have not collaborated with our city government who has been working on this for years and has incorporated solutions within the communities,” she said.  

Stretches police and fire department resources

As a chief in Kentucky, Russo said it’s the five or six blocks around the shelter where there are issues with loitering, drug paraphernalia, fights, drug abuse.

With it, he said, comes an erosion of the community’s stability adding people want to sell homes, leave quickly and the neighborhood falls into decline.

When they get a call, Russo said they’ll have to send two officers. With eight patrol beats, he said that’s 25 percent of their patrol contingent. It will also include an increase in medical calls meaning the fire department will head up there needing accompaniment from police.

“It’s a real resource sponge,” he said.

It’s resources Fire Chief John Evans said he doesn’t have.

The fire department had its busiest year ever last year and Evans said they’re on track to be busier this year. He estimated they’d have between 1,000-2,000 more calls a year with the shelter.

“How can you sustain that with the staffing I have?” Evans asked. He said the two stations closest to the sites are already busy.

“Bottom line it’s gonna be packed to resources,” he said. “Something’s going to suffer. Either the response times are gonna suffer or taxes are going to have to increase to hire firefighters.”

WVC told the county for years it couldn’t house a shelter

Though you would never guess considering the previous few weeks, Pyle characterized the city’s prior relationship with the county as “very well” and “very cooperative,” but in this case “we are completely at odds.”

Pyle said they’ve done everything they could to prevent this situation. All throughout the committee’s process during the past couple years, Pyle said they supported the county and “specifically Mayor McAdams” and said they “would participate.”

“All through that I have said, ‘we will not accept a homeless shelter because we see what a disaster it is downtown. We haven’t seen anything that shows us this is gonna operate any better in our city than it is there,’” he said. Pyle added they would work with them under other solutions.

He said the city opposed all six sites and has “no intention of being railroaded.”

“We don’t believe that process, no way is long enough and no way its included us. In fact, they specifically excluded any authority we would have had in the house bill 441. It’s obviously being shoved down our throats,” Pyle said.

That exclusion might be what frustrates city leaders with Pyle only ever being told that different cities would be included on the site selection process. Though all five are within a five-mile radius of each other.

“Did they call us? No. Did they consult the cities? They consulted Salt Lake City, in fact,

Salt Lake is specifically excluded from that land use pre-emption,” Pyle said.

Gilmore said though she holds empathy for those who must make this decision, the frustration comes from not consulting her locally elected leaders.

“[WVC has] been committed to preventing homelessness and aiding the homeless,” she said. “The outrage is our city government, who have put their blood, sweat and tears into a greater vision for West Valley City, being undermined.”