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Salt Lake County has a proposal for winter overflow shelters, but won’t say what it is

Salt Lake County Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives Jean Hill speaking at a press conference
Martha Harris
Salt Lake County Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives Jean Hill spoke at a press conference at Pioneer Park on Aug. 1, 2023. Hill was joined by local and state leaders.

Local leaders from throughout Salt Lake County announced Tuesday they have crafted a plan to provide more overflow shelter for homeless people this upcoming winter and submitted it to the state. But they declined to offer details on what exactly the proposed plan entails.

Utah state law requires government officials in Salt Lake County to submit a shelter overflow plan for the winter to the state by Aug. 1.

Salt Lake County Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives Jean Hill, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, West Valley City Mayor Karen Lang and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall all spoke about the submitted plan during a Tuesday news conference at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.

State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said his office received the plan and will review it and report its findings to the State Homelessness Council on Aug. 10. The state will then decide whether to approve the plan

Hill said the goal is to provide “a bed for every person who needs one in the coming cold months,” but did not elaborate on how that will happen or what it will look like.

Silvestrini said the plan is more robust than what the county had last year and that they hope to have 600 overflow beds this winter, as well as 200 additional beds for “code blue” nights when temperatures reach 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Last winter, the county started with 340 overflow beds, though it did expand that capacity after a streak of extreme cold temperatures.

But when asked where these beds will be located, Silvestrini said, “that’s part of the plan and I’m not going to talk about that today.”

Silvestrini said they did not want to release details because they don’t know if the plan will be accepted or if the county will receive the necessary funds to implement it.

“I don’t want to promise something we can’t deliver because we don’t line the funding up. So, that’s why we’re being kind of conservative about this,” Silvestrini said. “This isn’t a victory lap.”

In addition to not over-promising, the aim of withholding details also seemed to be to not alarm certain communities. Silvestrini said they didn’t want to announce locations because they didn’t want to create “a stir in a particular neighborhood where we may not actually be doing something because we don’t have the funding.” Plus, he said they’re dealing with property issues that could be difficult to handle if details were public.

While overflow shelter is only a temporary solution, Silvestrini said some parts of the plan are “more permanent than others, if things work out.” Local leaders said people who have experienced homelessness were on the task force to create the plan.

When questioned about why county leaders were holding a new conference if they weren’t going to discuss any details about the plan, Silvestrini defended their choice. He said submitting the plan is a “milestone,” but a lot of work still needs to be done.

Last winter, Salt Lake City Mayor Mendenhall signed an emergency order to increase homeless shelter capacity after five homeless people died within one week when temperatures plunged. It’s unknown how many homeless individuals died during last year’s record-setting winter.

One part of the plan that Mayor Mendenhall did provide is an expansion of hours. She said last year, winter shelters were only funded to be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The county’s proposal for this winter is to have 24-hour shelters.

Niederhauser said if the state does not approve the plan or thinks it is not sufficient, it can take over and execute a winter plan. Though he said the state does not intend to take over, it will be a part of carrying it out.

“We’re going to take the plan we’ve been given and if we have to enhance it in some ways, we’re going to partner with the county and with the cities to execute that,” Niederhauser said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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