Millcreek • Worried residents spread themselves over a corner of the same small empty library in Millcreek where some of Utah’s unsheltered will warmly sleep come the worst of winter.
News that this suburban community next to Salt Lake City will take in up to 100 homeless adults every night this October or November through mid-April in an overflow shelter at the former Calvin L. Smith Library is not welcome in many quarters. And it has come abruptly to the point of blindsiding many residents and even elected leaders.
“None of us had that much time,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said Thursday evening.
This will be the second go-around for the immediate neighborhood near 800 East and 3300 South since hosting a shelter at a vacant memory-care center just a block away in 2020 — as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified. That facility drew one police call for the season, but it was 60 beds and this one is bigger. There’s a school right across the street.
Plus, like the rest of Salt Lake County, Millcreek residents have seen heightened problems with homelessness in general turned severely worse since the coronavirus, with illegal camping, litter, crime, addiction, mental illness and human misery and squalor more often on public display.
Many people who turned up Thursday evening at the former county library at 810 E. 3300 South for Millcreek’s first hearing on how it will deal with the shelter’s effects were upset.
Brianne Johnson works on 3900 South and said she deals regularly with drug use, prostitution and vagrants escorted out of her building. The worry now is the shelter will bring more.
“It’s not the homeless situation. It’s the drugs,” Johnson said. “I feel like it’s just quadrupled, and it’s in our face everywhere.”
But public comment wasn’t just opposition and pitchforks. Several speakers said they felt it was the compassionate thing to do, to a big applause.
Kara Pope, who lives near 1500 East and 3100 South, said “these people are human. You all know that. I think we need to take a breath and realize that not everybody is a drug addict and not everybody’s going to pee in your backyard. There’s a lot of people out there that need help.”
Silvestrini, a second-term mayor, put it straight to the crowd of about 150 concerned residents and business owners, some of them clearly irate and fearful: It’s no longer yes or no under the Utah Legislature’s new short-straw mandate to Salt Lake County mayors. It’s a discussion now about how best for Millcreek to cope, he said, “with the least negative impact.”
Then he told the story of Jill.
Volunteering at a nearby food bank over recent months, Silvestrini’s duty has been to stagger vehicles in a drive-thru line to collect food. He got to know a schoolteacher who came regularly and was obviously living in her car. He learned she was a lifelong Millcreek resident. Medical problems left her disabled, and she’d lost her job, then her housing.
“I cannot abide the idea of people like Jill wintering in their cars or on the street when it freezes this winter without shelter,” said Silvestrini, clearly moved. “It’s the humanitarian reason why I believe our city needs to step up.”
No more dumping the problem on Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Midvale, hosts of county’s main homeless resource centers. “This is a statewide problem,” the mayor told nervous residents, “and a Millcreek problem.”
The mayor is vowing the city “is on this,” with Assistant City Manager and Planning Director Francis Lilly as the main contact with the public. “My role here is to help this neighborhood absorb the impact,” said Lily, who himself lives blocks away. “I’ve seen it happen in the past, and I think we can do it because we’re pretty strong.”
Stepped-up neighborhood security
Millcreek City Council members and Midvale Mayor Marcus Stevenson attended Thursday’s meeting in solidarity with Silvestrini’s decision, and Utah’s homeless services coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, said “we’re here to support Millcreek and we appreciate what you’re doing as a city.
“We’ve made sure this isn’t something permanent and will be something that will go to another city next year,” Niederhauser said. “We’re trying to make sure everybody takes their turn.”
With at least $500,000 coming from the Legislature to buffer effects for taking the shelter, Millcreek will get two additional police officers to be deployed primarily on foot patrol. The city will also hire a contractor to pick up trash and junk, and is brainstorming on aid to residents for items like lighting and security cameras.
“No camping” signs are going up on streets within 1,000 feet of the shelter and in Scott Avenue Park and officers plan stepped-up enforcement and targeted sweeps, said Steve DeBry, deputy chief of the Millcreek precinct of the Unified Police Department and a County Council member.
Switchpoint, the service provider that operated the winter overflow shelter at nearby Osmond Living Center two years ago, will run this one, with additional private security.
‘We can’t lock the doors’
The overflow shelter will be open between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., officials reassured, with strict separation between males and females. No meals, showers or social services will be available there.
“This is not a walk-in facility,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who also thanked the city for helping with what she added is a national problem.
“Everyone of us is being affected,” Wilson said.
As overflow limits at the other shelters max out, folks who have nowhere else to go will be screened before they come to Millcreek by bus or van, including full searches of their belongings and checks against the state’s sex offender registry. Drugs, weapons and other contraband will be confiscated, DeBry said.
Those permitted to be transported can’t be forced to remain once they arrive, “but that is the expectation,” said Christy Johnson with Switchpoint. “We can’t lock the doors.
“We know that this is where you live, and we want you to feel safe,” Johnson told Millcreek residents. “We also feel that it’s very important that our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, people that are part of this community that may be experiencing homelessness have shelter.”
‘We just want to be safe’
Petty crimes against homes and businesses, and traumatic encounters involving drug users or the mentally distressed drove many Millcreek residents to speak out.
Trae Eller, owner of Charlotte-Rose’s Carolina BBQ, said it wasn’t right to be demonized as ostensibly not caring about homeless individuals for not wanting the shelter.
“We just want to be safe,” Eller said, recalling a day when small children terrorized on the street by an unsheltered person came running into his store. He also complained about the short notice. “We’ve known for two weeks! Let me tell you where to drop a bomb by your house in two weeks!”
Others spoke from experiences of being homeless or helping those who had lived that way.
Erin Vistnes, a nearby resident, worked as a case manager at the Fourth Street Clinic in Salt Lake City in 2021 while the county had no overflow shelter.
“My job is to tell people every single night that they have to sleep outside,” Vistnes said. “I’m 24 years old. That is a devastating responsibility for me and my other fellow caseworkers to take on.”
She never imagined seeing so many patients with frostbite and other injuries from just one night in the deep cold, much less the leap in deaths among homeless people in Salt Lake City that year.
Vistnes called the relief at hearing the news Millcreek would host the shelter this year “unbelievable.”