As buzz built around Salt Lake City hosting the NBA All-Star Game, the Utah Jazz were thinking about more than basketball.
As the game and the festivities surrounding it approached, the team’s top executive was drawn into talks about getting more uneducated people off the streets as the national spotlight turned on Utah’s capital.
However, the extent of the Jazz’s involvement in those plans was not clear until after the Feb. 19 game.
“In the months leading up to All-Star Weekend,” Jazz president Jim Olson said in a Feb. 27 statement in response to inquiries from The Salt Lake Tribune, “we had a number of discussions with local partners regarding outreach, support and resources to the entire Salt Lake community during All-Star weekend to ensure as little disruption as possible to all of our local residents, including our homeless population.”
Olson’s comments were a reversal of the team’s public statement prior to All-Star weekend, when a spokesman said the Jazz had “no involvement in this matter” in response to The Tribune’s question about whether the team was working with any groups or bringing in anyone . money for additional homeless resources.
When asked why emails and text messages obtained by The Tribune through a public records request contradicted the team’s previous remarks, Jazz chief spokeswoman Caroline Klein said the initial response was a mistake that came on a time when employees across the organization had been asked. attend hundreds of meetings to prepare for the big event.
It would have been virtually impossible, Klein said, for anyone to know every conversation that took place or every topic that was discussed.
“When the Jazz PR team was initially contacted by a Tribune reporter asking if the Jazz were involved in any discussions about the community’s homeless during All-Star weekend, we said ‘no’ before doing the due diligence to ask everyone in the organization,” she said. who work tirelessly around the clock and we apologize for any miscommunication.”
Although dozens of protesters took to the streets to draw attention to the city’s vulnerable population, there were no reports of widespread repression of groups or individuals at or near Vivint Arena during the All-Star weekend.
When the problem first occurred
More than a month before the game, Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, sent an email to other service providers and officials to discuss shelter options for Utahns experiencing homelessness during All-Star weekend.
The Jan. 11 announcement set off a chain reaction of collaboration to get more resources online before an expected 100,000 visitors descended on Salt Lake City.
“From my perspective,” Flynn wrote in a follow-up email, “this is really about creating a calm and safe environment for our population to avoid potential problems with the huge influx of people and increased police presence.”
Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s top homelessness official, responded to the thread on Jan. 18 and called a meeting to begin planning.
“Little update,” Johnston wrote minutes later in an email (lightly edited for clarity), “Jim Olson of the Jazz has asked [county] Mayor [Jenny] Wilson to come to him with the needs that the providers would have to provide an alternative for people around the Rio Grande during the All-Star weekend. Ideally, he would love it on Friday, or have a date where we would have those needs for him.”
Johnston later said in an interview that he never spoke directly to Jazz officials and that his knowledge of the team’s involvement came from what he heard from others on the planning team.
Wilson said in a March 1 interview that she was already having fairly regular conversations with Olson when she came up with the idea of offering more services to Utahns experiencing homelessness during All-Star weekend.
“I said [to Olson], ‘Hey, this is bubbling up as an idea. What do you think?’” Wilson said. “And I remember him saying something like, ‘Well, how does it look?'”
The discussions did not include plans to use any of the $500,000 the county already contributed to Jazz for All-Star weekend, she explained, because the money was committed elsewhere.
The extra homeless resources, she said, did not come at the request of the team, and no one expected the Jazz to pay for them. But records show talk of a potential Jazz payment.
In a Jan. 26 email to the Salt Lake City library’s interim executive director, Deborah Ehrman, Johnston asked if the library would be open to provide space for unsheltered residents on weekends.
“There is some concern that many people are out and about downtown over the weekend,” he wrote. “Jazz offers financial support for opportunities.”
There have never been any library events.
On Feb. 2, Johnston emailed local and state officials with an update.
“I understand that Mayor Wilson sent the $50,000 monetary request to Jazz earlier this week,” Johnston wrote, “for the services described in the attached document.”
These services included staffing incentives for service providers and additional temporary shelter space.
A day earlier, Wilson emailed Olson to tell him there was a way to expand shelter hours and increase efforts during All-Star weekend, but the plan faced a financial hole. She offered to take a phone call with Olson to discuss it.
“Thanks for your effort on this,” Olson texted back the next day. “I think it comes down to where are the funds coming from? The state, the county and the city have all contributed generously to the All-Star weekend. We [the Jazz] still looking at a seven figure loss. Are you aware of any other organizations that may be able to help fund this.”
The state steps in
A week later, the Utah Homelessness Council voted to free up state money from the sale of the Rio Grande property to be used as needed for winter housing sites and major events like the All-Star Game.
Even as the response plan was being strengthened and funding fell into place, public officials did not want to talk about Jazzen’s involvement earlier in the process.
Johnston told The Tribune just before a Feb. 9 meeting of the Utah Homelessness Council that he was unaware of any communication with Jazz.
His own emails showed otherwise.
“I was very careful as usual,” he explained after the match, “to be clear about what I knew directly and what I had heard used.”
During the council meeting, county officials debated internally how to answer The Tribune’s questions about funding the increased homeless efforts.
“I was just the messenger, but I answered his [the reporter’s] question, ‘Is there NBA funding,’ in one word – NO,” Wilson spokeswoman Amy Bender wrote in a Feb. 9 email to the mayor. “It was true and honest. He didn’t ask me if the Jazz were specifically financing or if it was NBA financing, just in case they did. That being said – I still think the money should be the side story as they is not funded from one place.”
In the same email thread, Bender shared with Wilson The Tribune’s question about whether the NBA or the Jazz had any involvement in funding the additional resources.
She did not answer those questions.
Bender later explained that she didn’t want conversations about money to overshadow efforts to keep vulnerable residents safe during the festivities.
The final plan included incentives for shelter workers, transportation, food so those experiencing homelessness could watch the game at parties at the homeless resource centers and a temporary 90-bed shelter at the Central City Recreation Center. The recreation center opened for daytime activities on game day, but did not operate overnight as originally planned.
Officials have insisted the extra resources for the All-Star weekend were intended to provide a safe environment for uneducated residents and were not offered to keep them out of the public eye.
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