Salt Lake City Council members temporarily evacuated their meeting Tuesday night after a group of raucous activists and concerned community members packed the chamber, calling on the body to take an action they cannot do: keep The Road Home’s emergency downtown shelter open through the winter.
But amid capacity concerns within the new resource centers as the winter months grow colder, speakers during public comment at the meeting Tuesday night worried that the closure of The Road Home would negatively affect some of the community’s most vulnerable people — and could even result in deaths.
“What are you going to do?” one person called from the audience — a question that turned into a battle cry and ultimately led council members to leave the room.
“No beds, no peace!” they chanted after council members left.
State and local leaders involved in the transition are engaged in a four-week housing push to move people off of the streets and open up space within the new resource centers. And they have promised throughout that no one will be turned away or sleep outside because of a lack of space.
They want The Road Home to stay open through April, a police moratorium on tickets to campers until the new homeless services system can accommodate as many people as The Road Home could — and for the city to offer free public transit fare for all people who stay in shelters.
“Do you accept and endorse the letter that was recited earlier?” one resident asked during public comment, as the audience grew increasingly frustrated that council members wouldn’t commit to their demands.
A few minutes after packing the space with signs that read “protect Utah’s vulnerable” and “homeless does not mean right-less,” most of the group filtered out of the City Council chambers, crossing the street to the downtown Salt Lake City Library, where people experiencing homelessness often gather.
They did not return to the council chambers after the body reconvened, but their cheers could be heard from the City Hall steps.
In a statement he read to those who remained in the building when the council returned, Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke said members have been “open to communication and hard conversations regarding homelessness and issues surrounding the closure of The Road Home.”
“But it is hard to continue a conversation when there is no respect, yelling and disregard of the many efforts of all involved, including the council, to help our less fortunate neighbors,” he continued. “We plead with you to have an orderly meeting to continue with the items that are part of the solutions to help our homeless neighbors.”
Luke said the council agrees with the activists’ demands but that the body has “little control” over most of them. He also said they are willing to work with the Utah Transit Authority about free fares and looking into the city’s criminal code.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who was not present at the meeting Tuesday night, encouraged activists “to call for more funding from city, county and state leaders” but noted that the city leaders “are doing all they can to meet the changing need with limited resources.”
“As a City we have committed historic levels of funding for homelessness and housing and are willing to do more,” she said in the statement, posted to Twitter on Tuesday night. “We have never shied away from difficult conversations in SLC but if we can’t provide an opportunity for listening, we can’t move forward.”
The emotional public comment period followed a 2 1/2-hour fact-finding session on homelessness held by the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday afternoon, during which members heard from a number of service providers and government officials on issues ranging from camping clean-ups to how law enforcement engages with people on the streets.
But the meeting never broached the topic of keeping The Road Home open and offered few new details about what happens if the shelter downtown closes this fall and there are not enough beds.
Instead, officials reiterated their plans to provide overflow space for men at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall (currently being used for women), to offer women hotel and motel vouchers and to make use of 79 new treatment beds recently made available by Odyssey House.
The city is also looking at options for using the Weigand Center as a 24-hour warming and intake center in an effort to help people get into any vacant beds in the evenings, according to David Litvack, deputy chief of staff in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office.
“No one will go without a warm place to be during the winter months,” he said.
Council members also received an update Tuesday on the progress of a four-week housing push to clear up space in the shelters by moving people off the streets. Three people have been placed so far, and 36 people were in the pipeline as of Tuesday evening, according to Michelle Hoon, project and policy manager with the city’s department of Housing and Neighborhood Development.
Litvack said city officials plan to target 20 people who would get themselves into housing within 45 days on their own and 20 people who are frequent users of the homeless system. The latter approach, he said, would open up a bed “for five to six other individuals through the course of a year.”
Still, some council members seemed nervous at times about what would happen, as Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros put it, “if our plan fails.”
“Whoever those decision-makers are, [they] are going to have to be very nimble and very quick” to ensure people have a place to go if the warming center and overflow is full, Luke said.
The three new resource centers opening this year in the Salt Lake City area will collectively have space for 700 people, about 400 fewer than could fit in The Road Home’s downtown shelter. The new female-only resource center and the facility for men and women are already filled to capacity and service providers have been using St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall as an overflow space for women since last month.
There are 460 total beds for men within the new system and there were 566 in the system as of Sunday night, according to information from the Department of Workforce Services. There were also 54 more women than there are beds available at the resource centers who were making use of the overflow space at St. Vincents and using motel and hotel vouchers. Men are still staying in the downtown shelter until the new South Salt Lake resource center opens later this month.