In politics, everything is negotiable.
The folks in Sugar House seemed to understand this when they protested Salt Lake City’s supposedly non-negotiable decision to place a new “homeless services resource center” in their midst.
As we learned late last week, the concrete in which that decision was set crumbled easily and suddenly as state lawmakers and the mayors of Salt Lake City and county formulated a new plan. It was the second time things have changed. Proposed city shelters have gone from two with 250 beds each to four with 150 beds and back to two, this time with 200 beds each.
Few things, it seems, are as negotiable as homeless shelters along the Wasatch Front, and that could pose a problem.
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What emerged at a press conference at the State Capitol last Friday morning is better than anything previously proposed. That is because, if the Legislature goes along, every city and county in the state would have to help fund homeless shelters, unless they build some of their own. That kind of buy-in reminds everyone that homelessness doesn’t always originate in the center of the state’s biggest city, and it encourages even small communities to better care for their own.
But the plan also calls for Salt Lake County to choose the site for a “homeless services resource center” — a third one in this grand plan — at a site that is not in the city. County Mayor Ben McAdams said he would initiate a public process to consider several sites, with a final selection to be made no later than March 30.
Set aside the impossibly short time frame for a moment. This site may be the hardest to choose. Once you show people it’s possible to protest a shelter site and win, that can’t help but embolden opponents of other possible sites.
At the press conference, reporters asked McAdams point-blank about the not-in-my-backyard tidal wave that might have been unleashed. His response was a hopeful appeal to the better angels of our collective natures.
“We’re looking at those who are vulnerable among us and we’re asking communities to step forward and help to take care of them,” he said. “If we each shoulder a small portion of that, it’s a burden we can each bear individually.
“We don’t want to ask just one city to bear the entire brunt of this burden. And so, we are asking people to look at the best inside them and to be willing to step forward.”
But, of course, some neighborhood somewhere will be asked to bear a greater burden than the rest. And when people there are asked, the crime-ravaged neighborhood that surrounds the current shelter on Rio Grande Street downtown will stand as a warning that might overwhelm the best inside them.
McAdams addressed this, too.
“We also want people to understand that a homeless services resource center is very different from the emergency shelter that we see in downtown right now.”
The problem is, people can see the lawlessness on Rio Grande. They can talk to exasperated business owners nearby, or to the ones who gave up and left. What they can’t see, yet, is the new concept, which is little more than theory and assurances.
How will criminals be kept at bay? Officials talk about architectural designs that keep the homeless from lining up outside. How will resource centers with only a couple hundred beds replace a Rio Grande shelter with 1,100 beds? McAdams says when demand is high, some people will be given vouchers to stay at nearby motels. Others will be diverted to treatment centers for their individual needs.
Officials have yet to demonstrate why a scattered “resource center” plan is better than one central campus, located away from the urban core, in which single men and women are clearly separated from families with children. But politicians who are so willing to enact a concerted statewide effort to help the homeless do deserve a benefit of doubt.
It will, however, be interesting to see how the highly negotiable “non-negotiable” process that has played out thus far will affect the selection of a site for resource center No. 3.