The Great Salt Lake Shelter Shell Game – Part 2 – K Marlo Yost

riot police move in to stamp out homeless camping

As detailed in The Great Salt Lake Shelter Shell Game part 1, (11/9, 2019) this all kicked off when the multibillion-dollar real estate corporation Vestar purchased Utah’s Gateway shopping mall in early 2017. The Gateway, valued at close to $400 million, has a better than optimal location, just across the street to the east is the Vivint arena, home of Utah’s NBA team, the Utah Jazz. Bracketed on two sides by commuter train platforms, the mall is two blocks from Salt Lake’s largest ground transportation hub and just 11 minutes from the airport.

Directly across the street to the south, however, was Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter. Even though crime statistics clearly showed that the gateway was in no way impacted by the denizens of the shelter, it didn’t take much of an analyst to figure out that the ground beneath their feet had become too valuable to countenance their continued presence.

They had to go.

A secret plan was hatched to expedite their removal, and somehow, the powers that be came up with a bizarre plan to replace a shelter with a capacity for 1,100 people with 3 much smaller buildings that had a combined capacity for only 700.

That’s 400 short, but hey, who’s counting? The new shelters also couldn’t be called shelters, bad PR, they were called “Resource Centers.” There was one small coed center for those with medical and psychological issues that required closer proximity to downtown, one small center for the women, and one for the men.

This being Utah, the women were separated from the men.

By about 7 miles.

The first new resource center, the one for just women, began turning people away less than a month after opening. The second center was over capacity before it even opened, and as the date approached for the closure of the downtown shelter, there were close to 400 men in residence. The last resource center to open, the one for the men, had only 300 beds. That occupancy limit was set in stone and couldn’t be exceeded.

The math was alarming, but when the time came, many of the men just wouldn’t go to the new center, preferring instead to camp out in parks closer to downtown.

It isn’t hard to see why many of the men didn’t go. The men’s resource center is located over 8 long miles away from downtown. That’s an awfully long way to go if you have a job, or if you need to be downtown to reach the resources that you need to get by. Some men had a spouse or significant other among the women’s population. Some just really didn’t want to live right next to the jail. Oh yeah, the men’s resource center, besides being over 8 miles away, is right next to the county jail.

The resulting encampments brought predictable consternation among some of the populace. This was followed shortly by equally predictable police harassment against the homeless to try and get them to somehow vanish. Brutal police sweeps were conducted and clothes, tents, sleeping bags, luggage, carts, and other belongings were taken and discarded. Tickets were issued in the hundreds and tempers flared on every side of the issue. The ACLU protested that the civil rights of the homeless were being violated, which of course, they were. By this time, of course, winter had set in and all of the new resource centers really were full, regardless of the city’s protestations to the contrary. Temperatures plummeted into the teens and homeless people begged to be arrested instead of ticketed so that they could survive the brutal temperatures. At least you wouldn’t freeze to death in jail. By this time there were over one hundred campers in 4 parks, and of course, the jail was full to overflowing.

The whole situation came to an ugly climax on January 4th when protesters from several different activist groups decided to make a statement by camping out with the homeless in Washington Square Park, just across from the county courthouse. True to form, the Salt Lake City police force showed up around 11 PM in full riot gear, shields, and clubs at the ready. A shoving match then ensued which culminated in 17 arrests. The protesters presented a list of demands which included the opening of a new shelter downtown, free transportation for the homeless and a cessation of harassment ticketing.

Astonishingly, it worked.

12 days after the protest, the brand-new Mayor of Salt Lake, Erin Mendenhall, cried uncle and acquiesced to the primary demands from the protesters, announcing a new shelter to be located in an empty commercial building in the Sugarhouse area. The new shelter is slated to sleep 145 people and has shuttle service to the downtown area.

The new shelter is supposed to be temporary, with a closure date in April. Two things are astonishing here; the first is that it’s apparently OK to call this shelter a shelter, and the second is the fact that we still have elected officials in Utah who view anything about Utah’s homeless situation as temporary.

The men’s resource center quickly earned infamy in other ways; the short spur road to the center was purposefully made too narrow for parking, and the parking lot for center staff was securely gated. “No Parking” signs were then posted up and down the narrow street. This effectively eliminated the ability for any of the homeless men who have cars to keep them, and also prevents any other homeless men to get a car.

It gets worse.

Between November the 26th and January the 3rd, 4 men were hit by vehicles trying to cross the busy 6-lane highway to get to spur road where the new center is located, 3 were killed.

None of the drivers were cited. After all, these were just homeless men. One of them, a 43-year-old man in a wheelchair, was hit by a pickup on Christmas. He lingered for 4 days before finally dying. Even worse, KUTV news couldn’t help but smear the man in death by dutifully reporting that the man “had been known to cause disturbances.” You would think that given the tragic fact that this homeless man was killed in his wheelchair on Christmas would earn him a little mercy from the press, but you would be wrong.

It gets even worse.

It turns out that there was actually a crosswalk painted before these tragic accidents, but the Utah Transit Authority demanded that it be removed. This is the same agency that refuses to consider allowing the homeless free transport, despite having been moved so many miles from downtown, where many of the resources they need are located.

Following the deaths and the resultant outcry, UTA backtracked and replaced the crosswalk, and now it’s even going to have flashing lights and little orange flags! I guess that makes it all better.

The new shelter isn’t going to solve the fact that Utah’s plan to hide its homeless was so deeply flawed from the outset. The new shelter won’t have showers, case managers, food or access to health care. It has one purpose: the prevention of hypothermia. Every time another person is “found unresponsive” somewhere in the city, even the most conservative lawmaker must call that a failure. But April is going to come, and the excess homeless population will be turned out again, with nowhere to sleep where their very presence won’t offend and frighten Utah’s easily offended and frightened populace. They will still be incapable of vanishing.

Utah’s homeless situation is far from temporary, with a general population exceeding a million along the Wasatch Front and 58,000 new people pouring every year, building 3 new resource centers that failed to account for the present need never mind the future didn’t make sense in the first place.

Still doesn’t.

Building any kind of a shelter for the homeless is kind of like putting a band-aid on a gushing chest wound. At least in terms of finding a solution. Serious political will is required to approach a solution, however, and Utah doesn’t have it.

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