Plan seeks to keep homeless off Salt Lake streets during NBA All-Star weekend

Feb 8, 2023, 11:18 AM
Cars drive past a homeless camp on the side of Victory Road in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 20, ...
Cars drive past a homeless camp on the side of Victory Road in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News)
(Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Homeless advocates in Salt Lake City say they have been offered money to temporarily house homeless people during the upcoming NBA All-Star Game.

“They’re trying to show the world, the NBA, everybody that Salt Lake City is this clean and pristine place that is vibrant — and any kind of homelessness situation will bring down that vibrance and will bring down the image that our mayor wants to portray to the world,” said Carl Moore of Our Unsheltered Relatives.

An offer was made to help fund the 2nd and 2nd Coalition’s “movie nights” at the First United Methodist Church over the NBA All-Star Game weekend, citing safety concerns, said Wendy Garvin, a member of the 2nd and 2nd Coalition.

Initially, advocates were inclined to say no to the offer.

“If they had the resources to provide shelter, they should be doing it during the coldest days of the winter, not during the days that they wanted to hide the unsheltered population,” Garvin said.

“There was some debate about whether or not we wanted the city to look as bad as they are right now — just letting the truth be known. And the challenge that we kept running into is that we didn’t want to do that at the expense of our unsheltered friends,” she said. “If there’s a risk of our unsheltered population, getting more harassment from the police and just generally more at risk of arrest and things like that … then we could at least provide some sort of respite for that.”

Homeless advocates say the funding proposal was offered during a recent meeting of state, county and city officials, as well as homeless providers and advocates. The meeting was attended by Salt Lake City Homeless Policy Director Andrew Johnston, State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, Michelle Flynn of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and Katherine Fife, who works with Salt Lake County homeless services.

Advocates say they are currently negotiating the terms of the agreement with the bill nearing $35,000, according to Garvin.

But whether there is an official agreement and where the source of funding is coming from is unclear.

The Utah Office of Homeless Services confirmed that such funding has been discussed, but it says the funding will not be provided by the state. Sarah Nielson, spokeswoman for the office, indicated that Unsheltered Utah is working with Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City regarding that funding.

Johnston also confirmed that funding for the All-Star Weekend has been discussed, but said no funding will be coming from Salt Lake City, either.

“The city has not offered any money for that,” he said Tuesday. “The money’s been offered by other sources and I think that’s still in discussion. There is no city offer of money on the table for the 2nd and 2nd Coalition.”

Johnston said there are safety concerns because there will be many extra people downtown during the All-Star Weekend, Feb. 16-19, including near Vivint Arena and the Weigand Center, “where we do a lot of staging for folks who are getting services during the day.” He also said there will be several shuttles transporting people to homeless resource centers in the same areas where there will be a lot of traffic from visitors attending the NBA All-Star Weekend events.

“We wanted to see if there’s other options and pursue any ideas about how to get more folks inside overall. So that’s been a lot of the discussion so far,” Johnston said of the proposal to house more people that weekend.

“As a group, we want visitors coming to Salt Lake City for the NBA All-Star Weekend, as well as individuals experiencing homelessness, to have a positive experience during the events taking place over the weekend,” Niederhauser said in a statement to KSL.com.

The 2nd and 2nd Coalition is a group of homeless advocates from different organizations. The group’s combined efforts began during the cold snap in December in which five unsheltered people died on Salt Lake City’s streets amid freezing temperatures.

The coalition opened the doors of the First United Methodist Church to fill the gaps in the winter overflow plan. Since that effort, the group of advocates has worked to open the church on days when temperatures dropped near freezing.

Nearly every night that the church’s doors have opened, it has reached full capacity at 85 people.

Unsheltered individuals seek warmth in the makeshift warming tent provided by advocates during bitter cold temperatures on a recent night in Salt Lake City.
Unsheltered individuals seek warmth in the makeshift warming tent provided by advocates during bitter cold temperatures on a recent night in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Robin Pendergrast)

While the group’s work was acknowledged by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at the time of the deaths, the coalition’s work “bends the laws,” said Garvin with Unsheltered Utah. The efforts sidestep the city’s temporary ban on new permanent homeless shelters within the city, which was extended by the Salt Lake City Council.

When unable to open the church’s doors, the 2nd and 2nd Coalition has worked to meet the needs in other ways. Last week, amid a wind chill warning by the National Weather Service and predictions of dangerously cold temperatures, the advocates built an unsanctioned warming tent.

Advocates said they had communicated their anticipated efforts for the warming tent and were told the city would attempt to locate a building. When advocates received no word about 3 p.m., they continued with their efforts despite being warned that the unsanctioned tent may be shut down by Salt Lake officials.

Johnston and Niederhauser visited the makeshift warming shelter Monday night to speak with advocates. About 9 p.m., Salt Lake County opened the Central City Recreation Center, 615 S. 300 East, as a temporary warming spot. The temporary warming center was an effort by both Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which both released statements at the time.

“I’m grateful for Mayor (Jenny) Wilson’s eagerness to partner to keep as many of our unsheltered neighbors as safe as possible during this cold weather,” Mendenhall said. “We will continue to work collaboratively across the board to find solutions for those most in need in our community.”

But advocates expressed frustration with the delayed response that night.

The advocates’ frustrations were amplified by this new offer to help keep homeless people off the streets during the All-Star Game Weekend. While the city has denied being the source of any funding, advocates assert that the initial offer came from Salt Lake City and the NBA.

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Plan seeks to keep homeless off Salt Lake streets during NBA All-Star weekend