Top Moments from the Public Meetings on Homeless Shelters

To use an almost too-apt metaphor, Mayor Jackie Biskupski ran a gauntlet of public meetings Wednesday at which she was jeered, berated and generally scorned over the sites selected for four homeless resource centers. She endured the angry questions and comments at the community meetings for Sugar House and Central City. Tonight, she faces the Ballpark neighborhood council, which has two homeless shelters coming their way.

Here are the hightlights from the first outing:

Most Dismissive Assessment of the Public: “The concerns I’m hearing are really fear of the unknown.”

Yes, fear was on parade at the meetings, but much of it was not related to NIMBYism. Several residents pointed out that the vaunted New Model for homeless services on which everything depends is untested and has poor data to support it. In short, residents argued, it’s a citywide experiment in sociology, mental-health treatment, addiction treatment and law enforcement. If it fails, they complain, their neighborhoods could become the new “skid row.”

Biskupski’s only real response was, “I have tremendous faith in this new model.”

District 2 Council Member Andrew Johnston should be commended for telling the meeting: “There is risk.”

Best Illusion of Public Involvement:  Citizens were highly skeptical of up-coming meetings on shelter design. Residents complained that the public workshops on shelter design are going to be little more than “choosing paint colors.”

Promising public input on design, of course, is, indeed, somewhat mendacious. How will one meeting of residents, who have no training in security or architectural design—be expected to have meaningful impact on how the shelters are built? Already, one public design idea—landscaped berms to hide the shelters—has been rejected because it would provide drug-dealing cover and areas for camping. Architects, of course, will design the shelters—they may go through the motions of perusing public input.

Cheapest shot: The mayor: “What drives me is compassion.” and “We are all going to have to sacrifice for this to work.” Response from one audience member: “Then why are none of the shelters in your neighborhood?”

Best Shot-to-the-head Question: Sugar House resident: “Can you tell us this was not done to appease developers in the Rio Grande area?”

Biskupski: “Absolutely, not.”

Crowd: Various rude jeers, including, “Yeah, right!”

Best ‘Hands-on’ Civil Disobedience: At the Sugar House meeting, a resident called for a show of hands of those who support the Simpson Avenue shelter site. The vote was a landslide against. “That’s why the siting process wasn’t open to the public,” he said.

Spookiest Moment: Biskupski opened the Sugar House meeting by nervously approaching the microphone, saying, “There have been many threats.”

Worst Grasp of Irony: The best laugh line of the night came when the mayor told the angry crowd (I’m not joking here.), “I see people have trust issues on this.” The laughter, BTW, did not break the tension.

Worst Semantics: Police Chief Mike Brown explains that security at the new shelters will be much better than at Rio Grande because the single-street access is “more defensible.” Makes you wonder if he’s planning for a Viking raid.

Worst Attempt at Ingratiation: Biskupski confides to the packed room at Sprague Library that Sugar House will get the women-and-childrens shelter—“families that need to be embraced by us.” This will come as a shock to the residents of other districts who believe the women-and-kids shelter was still being decided and they actually might have input.

Most Awkward Walkback: After Bizkupski offered Sugar House the moms-and-kids shelter, a citizen (they aren’t so dumb) pressed the mayor to “commit” to it.

Biskupski: “That is what we envisioned. But I can’t speak for the council.”

Best Lipstick-on-a-Pig Branding by the Mayor’s Office: “Courage!” The mayor said hers is the first administration and city council to “have the courage” to change the dynamic of homelessness with the New Model. (Actually, former Mayor Ralph Becker set up the process and appointed the blue-ribbon group that led to the new shelters and the New Model. And it’s the county that will actually operate the programs.)

Best Hopin’ and Wishin’: The major says Salt Lake County is maybe considering building a Community Corrections Center to “reform” drug dealers who prey upon the homeless. This is so vague at so many levels.

Best Mastering of the Obvious: Biskupski: “We have not done a good job at getting information out to the public.”

Most Irrefutable Statement: “We can’t just blow up this plan and live with what we’ve got today (in the Rio Grande district),” Jackie said.

Best Way to Kiss Off Credibility: No one at the meetings thought the situation in the Rio Grande district should or can continue. Few lacked compassion. But most felt they had been drafted to absorb the sacrifice without a say in it. And the residents who live near the shelters, at least, will likely never trust Biskupski or their council member again.

Best Borrowing of Trouble: Biskupski retreats (kinda, sorta)  from initial stance that the shelter decisions were final—opening the door to community pressure on her and the city council. Already, two council members have run for cover.

Glen Warchol
Glen Warchol
The late, great Glen Warchol passed away in 2018. His last billet was on the editorial staff here at Salt Lake magazine but his storied career included stops at The Salt Lake Tribune, The Desert News, The New Times and others. His stories haunt this website like ghosts in a machine and we're always happy to see them. RIP Papa Warchol.

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