SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City residents sounded off in a town hall Thursday night, upset over a proposal to open a homeless overflow shelter in the Ballpark Neighborhood.
Many of the grievances aired centered around the fact that the public didn't even know about the proposal, until after funding was approved for it by the Utah Homelessness Council.
On Thursday evening, as Bees baseball fans flooded the Ballpark Neighborhood to attend a game at Smith's Ballpark, the neighborhood was abuzz with lots of talk from neighbors.
"Not again, really?" Ryan O'Mahoney asked. "This is happening to our neighborhood, again?"
Dozens attended a virtual town hall hosted by the Ballpark Community Council and Central 9th Community Council, expressing the same thoughts as O'Mahoney. Some state legislators attended to hear the concerns.
The Utah Homelessness Council recently approved $3 million in state funding for the nonprofit Shelter the Homeless to purchase the Volunteers of America detox center at 252 Brooklyn Avenue. The money would come from the $6 million made selling the land where the old shelter sat at 210 South Rio Grande Street.
According to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (SLVCEH), the VOA would then move to a larger building and expand detox services.
"The SLVCEH has identified deeply affordable housing as the greatest need for our community," read a statement sent to Fox 13. "At the same time we recognize the immediate need for flexible overflow beds as housing projects are being developed. The detoxification facility would have the capacity to accommodate between 80--100 people in winter 2022/2023, with minimal rehabilitation and maximum access to other services, which is a significant contribution toward our goal of adding at least 300 additional beds."
"We already have two resource centers," said Amy J. Hawkins, Chair of the Ballpark Community Council.
Considering the neighborhood has been plagued with crime problems and issues many believe stem from the current resource centers, they wondered why the area would be chosen as the home for yet another facility for those experiencing homelessness.
O'Mahoney questioned if the Ballpark Neighborhood would become the next Rio Grande, with many resources concentrated into one area.
"It's almost like at this point, we're surrounded," he said. "We're going to see an uptick in crime, violence, and drug use as usual."
Others in Thursday's town all also asked why residents had no clue about the proposal until very recently.
Hawkins said if felt like outreach was an afterthought, rather than an intrinsic part of the process.
"There needs to be community engagement," she asserted. "So we can find out what would the cost be to put a homeless shelter on that road, because it's not just the $3 million. It's going to cost the neighborhood a lot more."
One impact Hawkins brought up Thursday evening, was the potential for the shelter to completely halt a planned private development right across the street.
Hawkins talked about how the development project would add 525 housing units to the block, including 238 affordable housing units. She said it's her understanding that financing for the affordable housing would fall through if the overflow shelter moves forward.
George Hauser, the developer on the project, joined the town hall and explained that the fear is that they'll have trouble attracting tenants because of the proximity to the homeless shelter. He said that would cause them to have to depreciate rents, and that would push them into the area where they can't feasibly make the project successful.
"We don't know because of the lack of community outreach, you know, we're ignorant of the project. We don't know what the improvement plans are, we don't know their operational strategy," Hauser said, of those who put together the overflow shelter proposal. "We're kind of in a situation where we can't really evaluate the impacts it's going to have on our rents."
Neighbors weighed in after Hauser's presentation, clearly exasperated.
"We don't want to lose the affordable housing units," said resident Danny Hildebrand. "It is absurd to saddle our neighborhood with yet another homeless obligation. It’s ridiculous."
Paul Johnson, Chair of the Central 9th Community Council, talked about how little time residents had to react to the decision.
"Dropping a bomb on us like this, and then telling us you have two weeks before the state finalizes the purchase of this?! I think my head almost exploded," he said.
The legislative Executive Appropriations Committee is meeting on Tuesday, and will hear a report from the Utah Homelessness Council as part of the agenda. It's unclear if the EAC committee will sign off its final approval for the $3 million in funding at that time.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall withdrew her support for the overflow shelter, saying she is opposed to the plan and urged for emergency shelters to be located within the county rather than Salt Lake City, "to better balance the system."
At this point, residents are asking for more time and a community dialogue before that funding officially moves forward.
"Community outreach is really important, when you're trying to figure out what's going to happen in the area surrounding where you would site a shelter," Hawkins said.
"The plan to turn the detox center into an overflow shelter has many significant benefits, which we carefully considered as we developed our plans," the SLVCEH said, in its statement to Fox 13.
The SLVCEH said that the benefits include allowing the VOA to purchase a larger building to expand detox services, that the majority of clients served at the detox center are experiencing homelessness so the shift to an overflow shelter is a similar use, and the proximity the shelter will have to other services valuable to that population like medical, jobs, transportation, and food options.
"As we consider options, we will continue to work with all stakeholders to find best solutions for Utah's communities and those experiencing homelessness," the statement said. "The need for a permanent overflow solution to address the needs of unsheltered individuals remains and we welcome input from any municipalities willing to be part of our efforts to keep our most vulnerable residents safe this winter."