Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Homeless people walk on 500 West in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 18, 2017. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown plan to install surveillance cameras along 500 West and to tear up the landscaped median to add parking for police cars. The aim is to make the area less conducive to drug dealing and other crime.
SOUTH SALT LAKE — When she heard the news that the future South Salt Lake homeless resource center would be housing men, Joy Valdez said she felt one thing: fear.
“I’m really scared,” said Valdez, who lives one street away from the site at 3380 S. 1000 West. “They have no idea how this is going to impact this area. It’s really scary. Really, really scary.”
To Valdez, the reason for her concern is obvious — there’s no question in her mind that a men’s shelter will bring with it more drugs, more violence and more “hardened” people to her neighborhood, compared to a women’s shelter.
It’s an assumption that county officials contest, urging residents to remember the centers will be starkly different than the 1,100-bed shelter on Rio Grande Street in downtown Salt Lake, and that “high-risk” and “high-need” populations aren’t determined by gender.
While city and community leaders in Salt Lake City seemed content with the decision that a women’s shelter will be built at 131 E. 700 South and a mixed gender, segregated facility will be located at 275 W. High Ave., South Salt Lake leaders experienced a roller coaster of emotions Friday.
In an interview Friday morning, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said, based on conversations with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, she expected the South Salt Lake site would only host “working men,” a “lower-needs” population because of the site’s distance from downtown services.
However, when the Deseret News attempted to confirm, county officials said that wasn’t necessarily the case.
McAdams wasn’t available for comment, but his spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrund, said the 300-bed South Salt Lake shelter won’t necessarily only host working men or a more “low-needs” population compared to the other sites.
“Those terms that have been thrown around — high need, low need — they’re really irrelevant. In fact, they have no useful purpose anymore because the homeless resource centers are going to be managed very, very differently (than The Road Home),” Heyrund said. “We’re not even using these words to talk about those populations because they have no meaning under the new model.”
Those comments appear to conflict with past conversations about the South Salt Lake site. During the process to select the site, McAdams spoke publicly about the idea that South Salt Lake would be suited to serve a “low-needs” population, and he floated the idea of “working men” as that population.
When Wood heard later Friday that the county didn’t expect to house only working men at South Salt Lake, she was audibly frustrated.
“Obviously, I’ll be scheduling some time to talk with Mayor McAdams, because that’s not what I’ve ever heard from him,” she said. “Obviously, we still have more questions than answers, which is completely frustrating.”
Wood disagreed that defining high or low need is “irrelevant” because it makes “no sense to put a population that needs access to services downtown clear out on 33rd South.”
“I think that’s going to force the conversation of defining low-need because if you put a high-need population out there, the model isn’t going to be successful,” she said.
South Salt Lake Councilman Shane Siwik was angry when he heard the site wouldn’t necessarily house working men — an expectation he said was essential to preventing negative impacts on the neighborhood and the adjacent Jordan River.
“High impact and low impact — those terms are relevant to the residents of South Salt Lake,” Siwik said. “Single, unemployed, homeless men to me is high impact. I don’t care what the county says is relevant or not. And to find out that having a job is not a prerequisite to this site … That is the worst case scenario. I’m very frustrated.”
Heyrund said each of the facilities will be designed specifically for the needs of the people they serve, and “because of that, you can’t really rubber-stamp” each facility as “low or high need.”
Heyrund said “no doubt, some of the men will be working and have jobs,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean all of them will be.
“We’ve learned from the data that there probably aren’t going to be 300 people who fit into the category of working men,” she said.
County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she was also frustrated, particularly with the fact that the population designations were announced during a Shelter the Homeless board meeting, without being placed as an agenda item for public discussion.
Newton, along with more than 50 other local elected officials, signed a letter urging the Shelter the Homeless board to select a “lower-risk” population for the South Salt Lake site because of its proximity to the Jordan River — but she said she didn’t have the chance to deliver the letter before the populations were announced Thursday.
“It’s frustrating to see that this seems to be a decision that was made behind closed doors,” she said. “I think a lot of us in the community are frustrated by that.”
Janell Fluckiger, executive director of Shelter the Homeless — the nonprofit board that will oversee the centers — said the decision “naturally came” out of discussions with city, county and state leaders based on demographic numbers. Gender, she said, isn’t necessarily a “deciding factor” on what populations are high or low risk.
Fluckiger said Shelter the Homeless will seek to address community concerns as the homeless centers are being designed between now and when they open by June 2019.
“There will be opportunity for them to have a voice and participate,” she said, adding “it really is my genuine hope that communities will step up and help, that we can get past these negative conversations and say, ‘How can we help people in crisis?’”
Salt Lake City Councilman Derek Kitchen, whose district houses both the Salt Lake City shelters, shared a similar sentiment.
“I’m a little concerned that we’re getting so wrapped up in conversations about high or low impact and who we want or don’t want that in some ways it can be really damaging to a community,” he said. “I think we’re missing the mark. We should be focusing on how we’re going to improve the system, regardless of who’s in it.”
Michael Iverson, chairman of the Central City Neighborhood Council, said he was “pleased” to hear women were placed at the 700 South site because “we expect them to be the lowest-impact” population.
“Everyone seems to be in agreement that the single men will be the highest impact,” Iverson said. “That’s not to say women won’t have their own problems that they’ll need help dealing with, but I think we’re in a good position to help them get back on their feet.”
Bill Davis, Ballpark Community Council chairman, also said he’s content with the population designation at the High Avenue site, confident that the new facilities will be different than the downtown shelter.
“I personally believe the new model is going to be a vast improvement,” Davis said. “They cynical part of me would say how can you do any worse than what’s currently being done — that anything is going to be an improvement. But I’m confident it’s going to work.”