SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Community members concerned over The Road Home’s closure in December filled the Salt Lake City Council chambers Tuesday night. Their passionate cries during the public comment period led to the city council halting the meeting and leaving for recess.

“To start the meeting out, we have made some guidelines for decorum and civility to make sure people feel comfortable and safe to participate,” said Councilmember Andrew Johnston said at the beginning of the meeting. “Please be respectful during other people’s comments. Avoid cheering, jeering, snapping fingers, or any other disruptive noise that could cause someone to feel intimidated.”

Johnston later reiterated himself after several community members spoke out of turn during the public comment period.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I asked you at the very beginning to please be very respectful of our time tonight,” he said. “We want to hear from everybody tonight and I can’t keep having interruptions if we’re going to do this. Is that ok if we respect everybody’s time? Otherwise, I have to pull us out of the room basically at this point.”

Finn Epperson-Valum with the Party for Socialism and Liberation was one of the individuals who organized The Road Home closure opposition efforts at Tuesday’s meeting. He read the majority of a letter penned by 11 different community groups including Black Lives Matter Utah, CivilRiot, and Utah Against Police Brutality within the two-minute time frame allotted for each speaker.

“As you should all be aware, temperatures are dropping and the most marginalized members of our community, the community you took an oath to represent, are being turned away from the new shelters, as they have 400 fewer beds than The Road Home’s existing capacity. Despite public pressure to keep The Road Home open, this Council, and the state government have planned to shut it down as the final part of Operation Rio Grande.”

He then listed five demands that were originally announced at a rally last Thursday near the Road Home. The demands are:

  • Keep The Road Home open through April (originally March)
  • Have, at a minimum, the equivalent number of beds made readily available and accessible prior to closing The Road Home
  • No arrests, tickets, or harassment for campers until at least the equivalent number of beds are made readily available
  • Change the existing legislation to allow for the new centers to have more beds
  • Free public transit fare for all people who stay in shelters.

Epperson-Valum said that demonstrators understand that the city cannot make the ultimate decision on the shelter’s closure, but argued that the city could act in other ways.

“We understand the city council can’t do everything by itself. But it is a major actor in fighting for them and talking with the state, talking to UTA, talking to SLC Police about getting some of these issues solved,” he said.

“Johnston, we also understand that you guys support the opening of keeping it open over the winter. But you know prayers and written support don’t save lives. So we need you guys to do what we’re doing and take action and go speak to the people that do have the power,” said Damon Harris with the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition in the meeting.

During the final public comment on the matter, the speaker asked the city council, “Will you change the existing legislation to allow centers to have more beds? Will you make sure there’s free public transit fare for all people who stay in shelters? Please, it is a simple yes/no question. What is your response to that?”

One of the councilmembers said they typically don’t have back-and-forth discussions during public comment periods before demonstrators began chanting, “What will you do?” and “People over profit!”

The council adjourned for recess and walked out of the meeting. They returned 15 minutes later with Council Chair Charlie Luke reading this statement:

“The City Council has been open to communication and hard conversations regarding homelessness and issues surrounding the closure of The Road Home, including a four-hour work session meeting held today, held with various members of the State, County, City Administration, and community organizations dedicated to helping people experiencing homelessness. 

But it is hard to continue a conversation when there is no respect, yelling and disregard of the many efforts of all involved, including the Council, to help our less fortunate neighbors. We plead with you to have an orderly meeting to continue with the items that are part of the solutions to help our homeless neighbors.

The demands that are being requested are all things we agree with, but that we have little control over, at least by ourselves. We can certainly work with and ask UTA to collaborate with the resource centers to provide free fare. We have talked about looking into our criminal code. We are looking into all options to address this. Thank you.”

Epperson-Valum said the passionate response from demonstrators came from a place of urgency and frustration.

“We won’t be satisfied until we know that there’s not going to be one single person sleeping in the streets without shelter this winter,” he said.

Councilmember Ana Valdemoros spoke with ABC4 News Wednesday and said the council shares the same passion from concerned community members.

“We understand the frustration of the constituency that was here last night. We’re with you. We’re also concerned. We hear you. We’re concerned with our less-fortunate neighbors and we are doing everything we can to tackle this issue from the jurisdiction and point of Salt Lake City council,” she said.

Activists from Tuesday night’s meeting will be holding a Homeless Outreach event Saturday at 1:00 p.m. in front of the Road Home.