- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Salt Lake City officials announced a plan Tuesday to close an overflowing downtown homeless shelter hit by violence including a police shooting that wounded a teenage refugee, but critics expressed concern about a new shelter system envisioned at serving half the people it does now.

The situation around the city’s main shelter, the Road Home, has become chaotic, with drug dealers targeting the homeless people who gather there, said Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

The shelter that houses more than 1,000 people each night has also become a contentious political issue in the gentrifying neighborhood that is home to the arena where Utah Jazz basketball team plays, newly built apartments and a shopping mall.

Salt Lake City is betting on innovative new housing and employment programs to cut the current shelter population of about 1,100 people in half so they can be housed in four smaller shelters located elsewhere in the city, Biskupski said.

“There is nothing like it that’s been tried so far,” Biskupski said.

The first of the new facilities could be open in the next two years, and the city’s main shelter would close after all four open, she said.

Some are concerned that the city’s homeless could be left out in the cold if the plan doesn’t work.

“This community deserves to know what the Plan B is going to be,” said former mayor Rocky Anderson.

The new locations are planned for neighborhoods farther away from the city’s downtown, though they’ll be close to public transportation so for those using the shelters, officials said.

One is a building that currently houses a daycare center that the city plans to purchase, and the daycare owners who rent space there said they were disappointed they had not been told about the plan.

City officials talked with the building’s owner ahead of the announcement but could not speak with the tenants because the city does not yet own the building, said Matthew Rojas, the spokesman for Biskupski.

Asked whether the city is prepared for neighborhood concerns, the mayor said she hoped people will support the effort.

“We can either try to find reasons for this not to work, or we can find reasons to make sure it is successful,” she said.

The 150-person capacity for each new shelter will allow for services tailored to specific populations and make the shelters safer than the current facility, which was originally meant to hold a few hundred people, Biskupski said.

Police have said that while violent crime in the city is generally down, criminals mix in among the homeless people in the Rio Grande neighborhood where the shelter is located. Chief Mike Brown said crimes in the area over two months in the fall included a machete attack, a stabbing that injured four people a fatal shooting and assaults of police officers.

The neighborhood was also thrust into the spotlight early this year when a teenage Somali refugee was critically wounded by police during a fight outside the shelter.

Prosecutors said Abdi Mohamed, then 17, went there to sell drugs. When a man asked him for marijuana Mohamed demanded the man’s money even though he only had methamphetamine, then hit him with a metal stick. Police said officers opened fire after Mohamed refused to drop the weapon.

His family and friends have said he had a broomstick and did not hear the officers’ commands.

The officers were cleared in the shooting. Mohamed survived and prosecutors filed drug and robbery charges against him.

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