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Millcreek Journal

Millcreek residents divided on hosting overflow homeless shelter

Oct 01, 2022 07:49PM ● By Sara Milano

By Sara Milano | [email protected]

On Sept. 15, Millcreek residents and policymakers gathered at the defunct Calvin S. Smith Library, 810 E. 3300 South, to discuss the temporary overflow homeless shelter that will be located there for 200 days this winter. City officials plan to accommodate about 100 individuals experiencing homelessness in the space each night as the weather grows colder and sleeping outside becomes less viable. Mayor Jeff Silvestrini was unequivocal in his support for the overflow shelter, saying “in my view, it’s a moral imperative.”

Local residents who oppose the facility, however, were equally unyielding. “For the people who live on these two streets, it’s already a train wreck…we are in a high-risk situation for direct disruption of our lives and the police will only be there to clean up the mess after it happens,” a man who lives nearby told the crowd. Local business owner Trae Eller added, “We just found out two weeks ago. Let me tell you that we’re going to drop a bomb by your house in two weeks with no preparation time, no explanation… we’d be insane if we weren’t worried.”

The Utah State Legislature required each city in Salt Lake County to propose a location for the shelter. Many other proposed locations were not viable due to lack of resources or opposition from property owners. None of the other potential sites had an open floor plan, running water, and heating and cooling. In the end, Silvestrini explained, “The Calvin Smith Library was the only choice.” The facility was selected on Sept. 1, after which city officials hurried to make a plan for its operation and schedule a public hearing for residents. The state also allocated funds to help operate the facility, so the shelter will be at no expense to taxpayers.

Millcreek Councilmember Thom DeSirant, who represents District 2 where the shelter will be located, reiterated the mayor’s emphasis on moral obligations to the community, saying, “We have to take care of our neighbors, whether that’s the people that live in this neighborhood or the people who don’t have a house to live in.” Residents who oppose the overflow shelter chafed at the characterization that they lacked empathy toward people experiencing homelessness. Trae Eller, who owns a nearby barbeque restaurant, said, “First of all, stop acting like none of us care. We care about the homeless people, that’s insane and it’s insulting. We’re not you. We don’t live a distance away to be safe so stop it. It’s unfair you’re demonizing us because we’re concerned.” 

To assuage safety concerns from local residents, Millcreek plans to hire two additional police officers to patrol the building and the surrounding area. People who opt to sleep at the shelter will be bussed in from a homeless resource center at 7 p.m. each night and bussed out at 7 a.m. the next morning. They will be searched for weapons or drug paraphernalia upon arriving at the shelter, and their bags and personal belongings will be stowed away from them while they are sleeping. There will be plumbed trailers outside and people will be supervised when they need to use them. There will not be food served at the facility.

Millcreek resident Andrew Gruber spoke in support of the shelter, imploring the public to “think about the experience of being bussed into a place at 7 o’clock at night, having to sleep here not in your home, and having police cars all around you. And then you get bussed back out at 7 a.m. It sounds awful.” He reminded the public that “no one gets sent here involuntarily, they have to ask for help, they have to say, ‘Please give me a place to stay that’s not on the street.’”

While he was speaking, one woman interjected, yelling, “They don’t say please, they expect it. And they’re high anyways.” This comment was met with several boos from the crowd as she rushed out the door. Gruber continued: “I am proud to live in a community like Millcreek that is compassionate and doing our part.” 

One of the most compelling public comments was given by Erin Vistnes, a Millcreek resident who lives one block away from the library. She works as a case manager at the Fourth Street Clinic in downtown Salt Lake City. She explained that “last year there was not an overflow shelter available for any of my patients until…the end of January. So my job at the clinic…was to tell people every single night that they had to sleep outside. I’m 24 years old. That is a devastating responsibility for me and my fellow case workers to take on. So when I saw the news article yesterday that Millcreek and my neighborhood was taking on the responsibility of hosting the shelter, the relief I felt…was unbelievable.”

Vistnes became visibly emotional at this point, saying, “Last year, we also hosted our annual vigil for folks who passed away in Salt Lake City who were homeless, we had to memorialize 117 people. In 2019, it was 75. And the jump in those numbers has to be due in part to the fact that there was not an overflow shelter.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the overflow shelter “a historic plan,” mostly because surrounding areas have not taken on the onus of hosting people experiencing homelessness in the past. Historically, Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake have borne the responsibility of sheltering unhoused people.

Mayor Silvestrini and Salt Lake County Councilmember and Deputy Chief of the Millcreek Precinct of the Unified Police Department Steve DeBry are hopeful that the shelter will help alleviate the presence of homelessness in Millcreek, as well as prevent injury and death from sleeping outside. In spite of mixed views from Millcreek residents, the homeless overflow shelter at the Calvin S. Smith Library will open to homeless adults each night beginning Oct. 15 until April 30.