Salt Lake City businesses near new resource center to ‘embrace’ homeless community

Utah News

When Hoang Nguyen first learned that a homeless resource center was planned to open within a stone’s throw of the two businesses she helps run on State Street near 700 South, she was “really apprehensive.”

She, along with some other area business owners, worried about how the infusion of 200 women experiencing homelessness could change perceptions of their community. They were concerned about the safety of their employees and residents in the neighborhood. And they stressed about the impact the new center could have on the success of their business district.

“We’ve kind of talked about what the new models are and how they’re going to be doing it differently, where it’s a resource center rather than what was happening at Rio Grande,” said Nguyen, a managing partner for Sapa Investments, which owns Purgatory, a local bar, and Sapa Sushi, a Japanese restaurant. “So since then, we’re fine with it. We understand what they’re trying to do as far as the new way they’re tackling the homeless issue.”

The new resource centers, two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake, will replace the emergency shelter located in the downtown Rio Grande area as part of a larger shift away from a centralized model for providing homeless resources. They’ve been billed as a one-stop shop for resources, including case management, job training and housing assistance, and are meant to help people move off the streets and out of the cycle of homelessness for good.

Nguyen said her company plans to “embrace” the homeless population and is looking at ways to advance that mission — including the possible creation of a food donation program and a job training initiative through which they could eventually employ some of those staying at the center.

Skye Willard, director of business processes at Magnum Bikes, expressed a similar perspective, noting that she was “nervous at first” about the addition to the community but now hopes the new model for providing services can help some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

“We’re a very inclusive district,” she said. “We’re very understanding of our diversity and our population, and we’re really happy that this service center in particular, we’re excited about what it’s going to do for women who have been negatively impacted by homelessness. We’re hoping it will create some change.”

Sentiments toward the resource center were generally positive at a recent meeting of the Midtown District, a group of business owners near the facility, according to a few people who attended.

Casey Chase, founding partner of an event space near the resource center, said a representative from Volunteers of America, Utah, which will be operating the center, attended and explained how the organization plans to run the shelter and open lines of communication with its neighbors.

Chase, whose business is called Ember SLC, said she appreciates the nonprofit’s outreach efforts.

She said the questions people ask her about the shelter’s arrival often carry negative connotations, suggesting that the facility might be bad for nearby businesses. Her view is that the center will strengthen the community.

As someone who worked in a women’s resource center while in college, Chase said she’s familiar with the structure of these facilities and how they can empower people to leave homelessness.

“I can’t be selfish and say, ‘Yeah, I think it’s important, but it can’t be near my business,’ ” Chase said. “I just think that’s a really hypocritical attitude to have.”

Andrew Earley, owner of Mark of the Beastro at 666 S. State St., said he’s excited about the resource center’s opening and has expressed willingness to lend a hand, if needed. His restaurant is connected to a live music venue and could serve as a space for any community events or celebrations that the resource center wants to hold, he said.

Earley also heard from the VOA representative at the Midtown District meeting and said that in his estimation, those behind the transition in homeless services have been “very transparent” and communicative with the neighborhood.

Business owners still have some concerns, including worries about encampments taking hold in the neighborhood and the possibility of loitering that could dissuade community members from patronizing their businesses.

But Nguyen said the city has promised her it can take care of any problems that arise and that she’s cautiously optimistic it will follow through.

“If they allow people to pitch their tents outside, if there’s a lot more of that loitering going around … those are the key signs,” she said. “We’re not too concerned with them maintaining their own property but if all the properties around start seeing a huge amount of trash start piling up, that kind of stuff, then, yes. Those are the signs that neighborhoods are starting to really be affected by the resource center being there.”

The site selection process for the new homeless resource centers was met with anger, frustration and fear across Salt Lake County as residents worried any shelter built in their community would devolve into criminal behavior and drug abuse similar to what’s occurred at the shelter downtown, decreasing their property values and making their neighborhoods unsafe.

Draper Mayor Troy Walker in 2017 rescinded his offer for two proposed locations for a shelter within the city’s borders after he was pummeled by nearly 1,000 residents threatening his impeachment and promising a lawsuit if he didn’t take the sites off the table.

In Salt Lake City, a proposed center on Simpson Avenue sparked the most resistance. Leaders eventually scrapped that site, a decision they said was informed by Department of Workforce Services data suggesting that the 300-bed shelter in Midvale would be sufficient for homeless families.

With this history in mind, Salt Lake City is working to find ways to support the businesses and residents near its two resource centers, according to newly appointed City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, who’s over the district where the new women’s resource center is located.

“We were kind of told that these [resource centers] are going to happen in our neighborhood; we never really were asked,” Valdemoros said in a recent interview, noting that she lives two blocks away from the women’s center.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Analia Valdemoros goes before the Salt Lake City Council as it interviews candidates at its work session meeting, Jan. 22, 2019, to fill a vacancy for District 4 left by the departure of Councilman Derek Kitchen. Valdemoros was the overwhelming choice.

In an effort to be “fair” to the neighbors nearby, Valdemoros spearheaded an effort during this budget cycle to set aside $92,000 in one-time funding that will be made available to residents near the women’s center to help offset any potential impacts and address safety concerns and worries about declining property values.

While she said the city is still determining details, such as how close residents must live to qualify and what amounts might be offered, Valdemoros said the money could be used for anything from installing a more secure window to improving a building facade.

“I don’t envision, you know, this being a shelter like Rio Grande at its worst in this neighborhood,” she said. “However, neighbors are still concerned and they want to be vigilant, and I think that’s fine, too.”

Kat Johnson, who lives a couple of blocks from the resource center, said she’s supportive of a facility that provides safe, clean living space and services for people who need them. The center could also function as a critical “on-ramp” to housing, said Johnson, who has worked at national nonprofits focusing on homelessness.

She said she’s lived in other cities, including Los Angeles, where building housing or shelters was a challenge because of pushback from neighbors.

“It’s always sort of perplexed me because I’m not sure what people think the alternative is. Like, if there’s not a clean, safe shelter that’s providing services, it’s not as though these folks are not going to be experiencing homelessness,” Johnson said at a June ribbon-cutting for the women’s shelter. “They’re just going to be somewhere else.”

While no money has been set aside specifically to help businesses, Valdemoros noted that they can go through the city’s Redevelopment Agency to apply for funding for any updates to their facades. It’s also possible the council could set aside assistance for businesses in the future, if needed.

That’s something Nguyen, with Sapa and Purgatory, said she and others would “definitely welcome.”

“It would be helpful for smaller business owners in the area to use that funding to help with additional lighting, security things to kind of make that area much more safe with the resource centers there,” she said.

Shelter the Homeless, which owns the three new centers, is also working to create neighborhood advisory committees that could give neighbors a place to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have on the shelters moving forward.

“There’s been obviously a lot of anxiety” around their opening, said Preston Cochrane, the nonprofit’s executive director. “But I think once we get things open and are able to show the new model, I think people will be very much [pleasantly] surprised.”

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