Monday, June 1, 2020

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Citizen's Guide To Homelessness


Salt Lake City this week convened the last in a series of public-engagement workshops on building two new homeless shelters to address the seemingly insurmountable problem of homelessness downtown. (Despite some national reports, Salt Lake has not “solved” homelessness.)

The workshop at the new Marmalade Library was packed and the citizens and staff from homeless-service providers worked diligently. Even a couple of transitioning-homeless people joined in to provide an often-overlooked street perspective.

The city provided vegetables, dip, M&M chocolate-chip cookies and facilitators.

It soon became apparent, however, that the workshop’s parameters were going to be controlled. For one thing, the participants were issued a pre-determined list of “Criteria for Success” to prioritize. The list was developed by the city’s Homeless Services Site Commission.

Here’s a recap on where we are on solving homelessness:

— The city’s got a new plan that would disperse services (and the homeless) around the city.

— We’re going to build two new centers—men and women, respectively.

— And soon to come: “Community partners” will agree on shared goals to end homelessness.

The workshops seem to be the mayor’s office’s response to the public’s skepticism and feeling of powerlessness on the placement of homeless centers. For instance:

— In whose neighbornood will the centers be built? It’s unlikely Federal Heights will host a homeless center despite its proximity to the Trax line (a Criteria for Success priority). More likely is the west side, perhaps along North Temple.

— City officials insist the new centers will be additions to the existing Pioneer Park shelters—not replacements. But developers—who are salivating over future multi-use projects in the prime Rio Grande neighborhood—don’t find panhandlers alluring to condo dwellers. (Keep in mind that the Road Home Center and Catholic Charities own the property they are on and intend to keep facilities downtown.) But as we know, what developers want in Salt Lake City is usually what they get.


The team at my table took the exercise at face value rather than a charade of public involvement. For instance, we emphasizing an effective staff-to-client ratio (not listed as a “success criteria”) over “aesthetically pleasing” architecture.

It wasn’t until the workshop’s end that frustration with the new mayor’s office’s capacity to deal with the issue emerged. At the close of the session, a citizen-participant asked Jen Seelig, director of Community Relations, “It seems like we’ve been working on this for years, when will the project start?”

“You mean ‘start’ like in shovels-turning-over-dirt start?” Selig asked.


City staff apparently hadn’t prepared for common-sense questions and Seelig immediately punted to Mike Reberg, head of Community and Neighborhood Development. Startled, Reberg began a sentence, hemmed—started again, hawed, then finally said, “In the near future.”

The room roiled with rueful laughter and murmurs of “politics.”