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“We Are Going to Fight This”

Sugar House residents voice concerns over proposed shelter location.


The proposed "low-impact" facility location at 653 E. Simpson Ave. - DW HARRIS
  • DW Harris
  • The proposed "low-impact" facility location at 653 E. Simpson Ave.

Outrage over Salt Lake City’s surprise decision on four new homeless shelter sites appears to be centered squarely on the proposed location at 653 E. Simpson Ave.

At a council meeting on Tuesday, the seven-person board as well as Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski heard wave and wave from concerned neighbors, some of whom tearfully asked the city leaders to reconsider the spot.

The Simpson Avenue location sits on a quiet street in Sugar House, just west of 700 East. Currently a daycare, the building is nestled among a martial arts school, a retailer of imported goods, a beauty school and a fitness center. And it’s also near homes, in what was described as a middle-class “up-and-coming” neighborhood.

Residents who live within blocks of the proposed site expressed fear for their families, property and livelihood if a shelter moves in. City officials have said the shelters will not be run in the same manner as the Road Home Shelter on Rio Grande Street, which is a known drug market and often blighted with garbage, hypodermic syringes or fecal matter.

Instead, the city aims to create “low-impact” facilities that lift up those most in need without compromising the surrounding communities.

Even if the shelter succeeds, resident Chris Rogers argued, the value of their homes—some of which are owned by young, first-time owners—will nose dive.

“It’s a middle-class neighborhood,” Rogers said. “There’s not a ton of wealth in the neighborhood. And for a lot of us, all we have is the equity in our homes and we are going to lose that equity because nobody wants to move into a neighborhood if there’s a homeless shelter.”

The council heard testimony for more than two hours, little of which touched any topic outside the Sugar House homeless center. The council chamber was packed, as was an overflow room across the hall.

One resident asked that if the city moves forward with the shelter, it should be solely for women and children.

Resident Ruth Brown told the council members that if they changed course on this location, it would be viewed as a wise, if humbling, decision that all in the community could get behind.

“This is the wrong decision and it’s OK to admit that you’re wrong. It’s probably the best thing that you could do is to just say, ‘This is a mistake. We need to change our minds and we need to find a more appropriate location in a commercial area that is closer to services,’” she said.

After the four 150-bed shelters are open, the city plans to shut down the Rio Grande shelter, which sleeps about 1,000 homeless. The Road Home will reduce its bed intake as warranted, and it won’t close until there is no more need.

Earlier in the day during a work session, the council asked Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to help them communicate to their constituents what services would be available, how the numbers would crunch, and the guarantees that small Rio Grande clones wouldn’t spring up in the new spots.

McAdams said the service providers would focus on preventative strategies, line up treatment and help secure housing for the homeless.

He admitted the plan was a trial, but described it as shifting from “shelter focused” to “delivery service focused.” The city and county are weary of stalling the plans, too much, though, because “there is significant state dollars on the table” that might not be available if the process is drawn out, McAdams said.

After the announcement was made, residents vocally questioned the integrity of the city for making a decision without their input. Biskupski’s office has responded, saying the leaders are elected to make hard decisions. On top of that, they wanted to avoid bickering between neighborhoods.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson criticized that line of thinking as dictatorial. “Democracy is messy,” he said, but fair.

As the plan plods forward, Sugar House residents expect to continue to make their voice heard.

Tom Barraco took pride in his neighborhood for rallying together in opposition. “I really look forward to getting to know all my neighbors as we fight this,” he said. “Because we are going to fight this. It isn’t because we don’t care about homeless people or their plight. It’s because we care about our homes and our neighborhood.”