SLC to extend moratorium on homeless shelters for another year while city council signals discontent with current strategy

Torn between their compassion for the destitute and complaints from constituents, the Salt Lake City Council is poised to approve the Mayor’s proposal to ban new homeless shelters for another year.

During March, while hearing the Administration’s case for an extended pause on new homeless services (which includes last year’s moratorium on new shelters that runs out next week) the council also voiced strong desires to change course on homeless policy.

While the City continues to receive criticism about homeless camps on public property and from neighbors who live adjacent to the city’s emergency shelters and resource centers, it seems intent on tightening up rules on the operators of the facilities.

At the same time, calls from west side council members to stop concentrating homeless services in their districts seem to be pushing the council towards a commitment to an equitable geographical distribution of service facilities.  

Currently, the city’s code limits them to the CG General Commercial, D-2 and D-3 Downtown zones, which are increasingly transitioning from being primarily light industrial to residential and mixed-use. 

The scattered-site model

Ostensibly, the city is still following a “scattered-site” policy, initiated in the Jackie Biskupski Administration and enthusiastically supported by current Mayor Erin Mendenhall while she was on the Council. 

Instead of creating a single, mega-facility for homeless services, the scattered-site approach hopes to integrate smaller facilities into neighborhoods without causing significant negative impacts to nearby residents.

The Gail Miller Homeless Resource Center at 242 W Paramount Ave (1530 S). Photo by Luke Garrott.

If that’s the model, it doesn’t seem to be working. 

At their March meetings, several Council Members implored their colleagues “to rethink the system as a whole” for “new ideas” and the necessity of “digging deep to get out of negative cycles.”

The clock is ticking. “Not comfortable with being a city that never allows this land use again,” the council is poised to set a hard deadline to agree on a new proposal by May 2023. If it doesn’t, the old code will once again become law – and the proposed reforms will die on the vine.

The new state mandate – HB 440

The city has been claiming for years that it shoulders a disproportionate burden of providing homeless services in the state, and successfully sought some relief at the legislature this year.

That new legislation, HB440, is partially shaping the city’s strategy moving forward. Crafted to lighten Salt Lake City’s municipal burden of providing overflow shelter beds during the winter, HB440 will move several hundred of those beds seasonally to other places in Salt Lake County. 

Currently there are emergency overflow shelters in South Salt Lake and Midvale, but none in the rest of Salt Lake County. 

What’s the city up to?

The council is demanding strict, enforceable regulations for homeless resource centers and shelters – responding to complaints from neighborhood residents currently living near facilities who feel overwhelmed and threatened by campers nearby.

The current conditional use system is broken, Planning Director Nick Norris told the council at their work sessions in March. He aims to remove the conditional use tag, and at the same time make sure the city can enforce the stiffer regulations being considered. 

District 4 Council Member Ana Valdemoros, a former planner with the city, set a high bar for the reforms: “How we can eradicate all or most of the impacts in the neighborhood so it’s a safe place for both sheltered and unsheltered.”

The Geraldine King Homeless Resource Center at 131 E 700 S. Photos by Luke Garrott.

The Administration also says it needs to create a new category of homeless shelter in city code – the type that are seasonal and limited to a six-month operating period. The likely demand in future winters is clear, given the city’s current shortage of beds.

But the city wants other municipalities in the county to provide beds before the city’s seasonal shelters are activated.

“As a city, we may want to develop some benchmarks to determine how other communities are stepping up,” Director Norris suggested to the council March 8.

The new category will regulate “emergency overflow shelters” – which will likely be former motels like the Ramada Inn at 1659 W North Temple, which the city has converted into a seasonal shelter. 

The new “temporary” emergency overflow shelters that are proposed to be permitted in “any zoning district that allows motels/hotels and government owned institution buildings.” 

Those zones are CB Community Business, CG General Commercial, CC Commercial Corridor, CSHBD Sugar House Business District Core, all TSA Transit Station Area zones, M-1 Light Manufacturing, all D Downtown zones, and G-MU Gateway Mixed Use.

Current conditions and the council

The city’s four shelters were again full in March – at 98%, reported Andrew Johnston, the Mayor’s Director of Homeless Policy and Outreach. 

The Council continues to fund outreach teams, resource fairs, cleanups, and abatements. Specific hotspots mentioned at the March briefings were the Jordan River, Victory Road, and the Foothills.

Freshman Council Member Victoria Petro-Eschler told her colleagues that District 1 neighborhoods are “terribly concerned for what this summer holds for us.” 

Camping along the Jordan River in the Fairpark neighborhood. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Worrying about the proliferation of camping on city property, she warned of “escalations and activities when we try to share public lands again.”

“There’s a lot of compassion fatigue among my neighbors,” Petro-Eschler reported.

District 3 representative Chris Wharton stated “I’m not ready to say we should ban any more shelters or homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City.” 

Wharton emphasized his commitment to a “housing first” policy, as well as other facets of the city’s approach to homelessness – its gentrification study and affordable housing overlay that are still in development.

At the same time, his disappointment with the status quo was evident. “I’m eager to start on something that’s more intentional and better thought out than what we’ve done in the past,” Wharton said last week.

Scattered Site 2.0: Can it work?

The council’s comments revealed significant disquietude with the city’s current conditions and policy trajectory on the homeless issue. 

“We see that [homeless resource centers] have an impact in the neighborhood that’s way more that we thought,” Downtown representative Valdemoros pointed out to Planning Director Norris on March 8, who quickly agreed.

Valdemoros continued: “We thought, hey, this scattered site is going to take care of the issue that we had in Rio Grande, but it’s not the case three years later.”

Current camping conditions in the Rio Grande neighborhood along the sidewalk adjacent to St. Vincent de Paul, on 200 S and Rio Grande St. Photos by Luke Garrott.

The Rio Grande neighborhood, which Valdemoros represents, is where the 1000-plus bed Road Home emergency shelter used to be located – at the southwest corner of 200 S and Rio Grande. Currently in construction at that site is The RIo

Just to the east, at 437 W 200 S, resides the St. Vincent de Paul complex – a dining hall, emergency overflow shelter, and homeless resource center.

Currently, sidewalk camping proliferates in front of “St. Vinny’s” – under the frequent watch of Salt Lake City police. It appears that Operation Rio Grande and subsequent security measures have successfully removed the illegal drug market and associated violence from the area. 

Camping on public property – which the Mayor’s office is tolerating in a temporary fashion while shelters remain full – remains a sore spot for decision-makers. 

While the city works on other pieces of the policy puzzle, like more permanent supportive housing and “deeply affordable” tax-credit housing, the question of where to locate new homeless services remains vexed.

The mayor wants nearly full discretion where new “emergency overflow shelters” are located in the city, while at the same time severely restricting more “permanent” shelters and resource centers.

The council seems to be reeling under complaints from constituents about current service centers and city-wide camping in the public right-of-way. But the council also evidences sincerely-held equity concerns, recognizing that some areas are currently targeted for services in the zoning code.

It’s all coming to fruition within the next twelve months. The public, Planning Commision, and City Council will all get their opportunities to comment on the city’s proposed new rules for homeless services. 

The outcome is likely to be a measure of east side NIMBY strength as well as west side political power to make “ya basta!” (enough already!) a permanent part of the city’s homeless services land-use policy.

Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.