SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to buy a detox center in the Ballpark neighborhood of Salt Lake City and turn it into a homeless overflow shelter is moving forward after some legislators, including the entire Utah Senate Democratic Caucus, voiced concerns against it.
The Utah Homelessness Council fleshed out the plan in a report to the Executive Appropriations Committee (EAC) during a meeting Tuesday and explained why they approved the proposal.
The council recently gave the green light to use $3 million in funding from the sale of the former Road Home shelter downtown to allow the nonprofit Shelter the Homeless to purchase the building, which sits at 252 Brooklyn Avenue in the Ballpark neighborhood.
Currently, Volunteers of America (VOA) runs its detox programs in the building.
Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who is now the State Homeless Coordinator, told the EAC that many providers were involved in coming up with the proposal.
"Of all the things that they reviewed as a system, this they thought was the most important and rose to the top," he said during his presentation to the EAC.
Purchasing the VOA detox center, he explained, will allow the VOA to expand its services and purchase a building on Redwood Road at 1800 South that formerly housed a Zions Bank.
It would increase the detox center's capacity by 50 beds or more, he said.
The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (SLVCEH) previously told Fox 13 in a statement that the 252 Brooklyn Avenue location is close to transportation and services, and using it as an overflow shelter is similar to its current use as a detox facility.
Niederhauser explained that Department of Workforce Services attorneys determined it was an appropriate use of the funds.
He said the SLVCEH went through an entire process to come up with the proposal.
"They look at the whole system, from detox, to shelter, to permanent supportive housing, and they determined what is best for the system," he said. "And so when they brought their proposal to us, we knew this was a substantive proposal. It came from the coalition."
After their own discussion and deliberation, Niederhauser said the Utah Homelessness Council unanimously passed the proposal. However, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has since rescinded her approval.
But in the short time since, community members and businesses have come forward with concerns.
"Our concern is that the shelter would present a magnet for encampments. That's the primary concern," said George Hauser, President of SMH Builders.
Hauser described how they are working on two different housing developments that sit right next to each other, directly across Brooklyn Avenue from the VOA building.
The building closest to the detox center, Hauser said, would contain 237 units of affordable housing. The other building south of that would house 287 units at market rate.
Turning the detox center into an overflow shelter, Hauser explained, "could kill the project."
"Our concern is that it'll detract from the housing experience," he said. "And that we'll have to suffer lower rents and some additional costs, increased costs for security and other things like that, and that it may tend to make our project infeasible."
During Tuesday's EAC meeting, state Sen. Luz Escamilla (D-Salt Lake City) read a statement on behalf of the entire Senate Democratic Caucus full of objections.
"We were told that the weight of the issue of homelessness would be better spread across the entire state, so other municipalities can also come and be part of the solution," she said. "Today, we feel that this is not worth moving forward and we have serious concerns."
But the EAC's meeting Tuesday was not for any actual action-taking on the proposal. It was simply for the Utah Homelessness Council to provide its report to legislators.
Niederhauser explained that next comes the process of trying to acquire a conditional use permit on the building, which Salt Lake City would issue.
He expects community and city discussion.
Hauser is also hoping for a dialogue. He said he's looking forward to a robust interaction with the VOA and Shelter the Homeless and hopes they can work together to better the neighborhood.