SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Aug. 6, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall voiced her support for the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness’ call to add 300 additional emergency shelter beds to the countywide homeless services system in a press conference Thursday.
She also announced immediate, short-term and long-term commitments the city could make with those additional spaces online and available to homeless individuals, said a news release from the mayor’s office.
“I want any Utahn who needs shelter — who wants a warm, safe place to sleep at night — to have that option by December of this year,” Mendenhall said. “We cannot go another year, let alone another winter, without the adequate space to shelter every single person who is out there on the street right now. The data says the target is 300 beds, and that need has to be met in order for all the coordinating systems that facilitate homeless services in our city and county to function properly.”
The mayor asked the state to support the coalition in funding the acquisition and staffing for the 300 additional beds, and outlined immediate, short-, and long-term commitments the city could begin activating with those resources online.
Ten months after launching the city’s Community Commitment Program, a two-phased, outreach-focused effort partnering with more than a dozen service agencies, the city has been able to provide resources and access to services to hundreds of individuals, the news release said. The city has also continued its support for additional Downtown Ambassadors, expanding the program to the North Temple and Rio Grande neighborhoods.
“However, in the course of this outreach-focused work it’s become clear that there are areas within the city which are particularly vulnerable to the establishment of entrenched encampments, and suffer the unintended consequences of an increased presence of criminals attempting to exploit and prey upon homeless encampments, using them to mask illegal activity,” the news release said.
To address criminal-specific issues, the city last week adjusted its approach by beginning prioritized, ongoing camp enforcement targeted around vulnerable areas and populations.
“From investing more than $15 million annually to support direct services to the unsheltered, to welcoming two HRCs and the last two winter emergency shelters into the city, Salt Lake City’s commitment to and support for people experiencing homelessness is clear,” Mendenhall said. “Our goal with this focused approach is to deter the continued presence of criminals who exploit and prey on the unsheltered homeless, and use their encampments as a place to hide and conduct their illegal activity.”
The mayor asked that the state support the city’s law enforcement efforts by increasing the mitigation funding for communities that host homeless resource centers, and proposed the state participate in funding the Downtown Ambassador Program.
With 300 additional emergency shelter beds available this winter, the increase in accessible space would provide enough beds for every person currently camping on city streets, according to the coalition. This shift would give Salt Lake City the ability to continue its support of outreach and offers of shelter to the unsheltered population, as well as consistently enforce its camping ordinance citywide.
“Our priority is being able to offer people services,” Mendenhall said. “We can’t force anyone to accept shelter or a treatment bed, but with enough space available for them, we also can’t continue letting them live in a public space indefinitely. It would be perpetuating the existence of inhumane living conditions when there is a better alternative that can help individuals to begin meeting their needs.”
The mayor also asked the Salt Lake County Council and state to consider quickly prioritizing funding to open and staff a temporary receiving center for behavioral health services and substance abuse detox and services.
“The gap between now and more permanent solutions ahead of us needs to be bridged, and today I’m asking our county and state partners to prioritize funding that would temporarily open a receiving center for behavioral health services and substance abuse detox and treatment,” Mendenhall added. “I know we all agree this is a critical piece of the solution. We simply can’t wait two more years.”
Long term, the city is focused on its efforts to fund permanent supportive housing and Mendenhall committed to proposing to the Salt Lake City Council the use of American Rescue Plan funds to invest in the creation of more permanent supportive housing in Salt Lake City.
“I can’t reiterate enough that having the shelter space to bring people off of the street is just the middle part of this work,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to provide everyone the opportunity for permanent housing, the supportive services needed to maintain their health and housing, and a community that embraces them as equals,” Mendenhall said. “We are fortunate to have this opportunity to further expand the City’s inventory of permanent supportive housing, and I am committed to using ARPA funds to change lives.”
The mayor encouraged the state to also look at one-time and ongoing funding for deeply affordable housing and ongoing supportive services, and committed to requesting the city’s federal congressional delegation pursue national mental health legislation and funding.