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Downtown homeless shelter’s pending closure divides advocates, political leaders

Posted at 4:37 PM, Oct 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-31 19:41:39-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Bill Tibbitts is not happy with the decision to close the Road Home shelter in a few weeks.

"We don’t really have a plan. We have an outline of a plan, and it’s 20 degrees and, you know, they’re supposed to close the shelter in like two weeks," said Tibbitts, who is with the Crossroads Urban Center, which helps low income people in crisis.

After a meeting with some stakeholders on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox announced that the Road Home shelter downtown would close within a month now that the new men's homeless shelter in South Salt Lake was given a temporary occupancy agreement. The other new shelters with fewer beds are already at capacity.

State officials said they will have treatment beds, overflow space, motel vouchers and a push to get more people into affordable housing as they transition to a shelter model that encourages people to get into more permanent housing and out of homelessness. Faced with immediate pushback, Governor Gary Herbert on Thursday insisted no one would be left in the cold.

Any effort to keep the Road Home shelter open would require legislative action. In an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he was supportive of the idea to close the downtown shelter.

"The purpose of this is always been to provide housing for people and to get them on their own, self-sufficient," he said.

The legislature did not fund a $25 million affordable housing request earlier this year, which some low-income advocacy groups pushed for. Speaker Wilson predicted a more refined request would come to lawmakers in the next session and pointed to other funding sources they could seek.

"We’re going to get the highest return on the taxpayer’s investment. That process has continued. I think we’ve refined that," he said. "I think you’ll see some new proposals coming to the legislature in January that we’ll seriously consider."

Tibbitts said more money needs to be kicked toward affordable housing or else people will wind up back on the streets once they get out of treatment beds or shelters.

"With everybody saying housing’s a solution, I think it’s time to actually put some money into the type of housing that will make a difference," he said.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski did ask if there was a desire to keep the Road Home open in a call with Lt. Governor Spencer Cox on Wednesday, but signaled her willingness to cooperate with the state. Traveling back to Utah from Washington, D.C., she did say in a statement the city would step up and use funding provided by the state to find more permanent housing for people.

"With the announcement that the Downtown Shelter will be closing as scheduled, Salt Lake City is fully committed to leading the 30-day effort to find immediate and long-term housing for individuals experiencing homelessness," Mayor Biskupski said. "We are grateful that state has provided funding for this effort, and we are confident, based on our experience with the emergency evacuation of Georgia Apartments, that we can be successful. We believe this effort, along with the new resource centers, motel vouchers, and St Vinny’s overflow will ensure no one is left in the cold this winter."

Homelessness has become a top issue in the race for Salt Lake City's next mayor. Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall expressed differing views on the issue in interviews with FOX 13 on Thursday.

Escamilla said the decision to close the Road Home soon "makes sense" and she did not believe the current shelter was safe for anyone. She also believed there was enough bed space available across the Salt Lake Valley to ensure no one was turned away.

"No one is going to be freezing. No one is going to be staying outside, but we need a place that people feel safe and they feel confident they’re going to get the help they need," she said. "We’re compassionate, we’re humane and this is an issue of an emergency and a crisis. Closing the Road Home was already agreed and needs to move forward because there is a contingency plan. Because counting beds and locations, it doesn’t matter where they are as long as they're staying safe and warm."

Mendenhall said she had concerns the decision to close the shelter was premature and too risky.

"It doesn’t sound like enough of a plan to deal with the transition that we still haven’t completed. The South Salt Lake facility isn’t open yet. We aren’t sure that men who are downtown today are going to be willing to go to the South Salt Lake facility," she told FOX 13. "These are unknowns and it makes me uncomfortable, especially as cold as it is already in Salt Lake City, that we may be gambling with people’s safety on our streets."