Homeless in Utah Part 1: What’s really involved in clearing the camps and where do they go next?

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s freezing outside, and Utah’s homeless population is getting hit by more than just the pandemic.

As winter sets in, agencies across Utah are working together to address the homeless crisis. The task this year, however, has been made more complicated by the pandemic.

In good weather or bad, homeless camps can pop up across public spaces in Utah. You see them on sidewalks, on the sides of streets, and even underneath freeway viaducts. For some, these camps are shelter, even their temporary home.

Homeless camp after snowstorm in Salt Lake City

The camps can also create a problematic situation, creating hidden dangers for both the people experiencing homelessness and those living near the camps—from sanitation issues like trash and human waste to dangers presented by drug paraphernalia, including used needles.

The lack of resources is another concern. Without support, the person experiencing homelessness might feel driven to crime to survive. According to Salt Lake City Police, they could also be seen as an easy target to criminals.

Furthermore, people who experience homelessness sometimes suffer from mental health issues or drug addiction.

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These hardships have the potential to compound and keep them stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation.

Kathy Bray, President and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah tells ABC4 News, when addressing homelessness, it’s important to also address mental health issues and addiction as well, saying, “that’s what we are trying to do is integrate our services in a way where individuals, who are experiencing one or all three of the areas that we focus on, can make progress on stabilization and healthier lives.”

There is a perception that when police officers clear the camps they are simply kicking people out. However, as health officials explain, officers are actually there to protect both the homeless and those living or working near the area. They are part of a coordinated effort by various agencies working to help before, during, and after the camps have been cleared.

Salt Lake County Health Department is charged with cleaning up the camps. “Our primary purpose there is to mitigate health hazards caused by trash, human waste, and drug use,” says Spokesperson Nicholas Rupp with the county health department. “The second goal is to make sure the people in the camp know the resources available to them, all of the agencies that can help, we even provide a shuttle service.”

Salt Lake Police Department’s Sgt. Keith Horrocks explains, “People think we are picking on the homeless or we are making them move. It is not us, it is the health department that conducts the abatements. Our job is to keep the public, business, and homeless safe. We try to make sure people are aware there are resources available to help get them out of the situation. In the last abatement, we spoke to 150 people and only eight went into a shelter.”

ABC4 News asked Sgt. Horrocks why people are avoiding the shelters.

According to Horrocks, “There are lots of reasons people will not go into the shelter. Sometimes, it’s about their property. What is with them is all they have, and they can’t take it to the shelter. If there is a couple on the streets, it’s because they don’t want to be separated, or friends who do not want to be separated. Sometimes it is because their dog is with them.”

Salt Lake Police Watch Commander Lt. Bill Manzanares says, “it is a multi-agency approach. We (the police) are there to keep the peace and keep everyone safe. We’ve assisted the health department for years to help with the cleanup and trying to show people the right resources and know what resources are available.”

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Agencies like Volunteers of America, The Road Home, and even St. Vincent de Paul try to intercede on the behalf of the homeless population before the clearings.

“Our homeless outreach team is usually aware of the plan for clearing camps.” Bray says, “When we are aware a camp is going to be cleared, we go in ahead of time and inform the people at the camp.” Bray said they go into the camp and ask people there how they can help, whether by getting them into an emergency shelter or finding them another place to go.

“We just try to figure it out and give them a heads up it’s coming. Sometimes we are able to get people into an emergency shelter, and other times they just wait for the clean up to occur,” says Bray.

Kathy Bray says her agency is “focused on trying to help people move out of poverty, stabilize any behavioral health issue, then move into the community and live as healthy of a life as possible, and reach their potential.”

Jean Hill, Co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition To End Homelessness says they are trying to adapt to concerns of people on the street, new facilities have been opened to help couples, and the new Gail Miller Resource Center takes pets.

Overflow housing a concern this winter

Getting people into safe and warm places is not easy. Not only does the person have to choose to get help, but there has to be room for them in the system.

This winter, agencies are trying to deal with the overflow at some shelters.

The Salt Lake County Coalition to End Homelessness is charged with planning for winter overflow housing for the homeless, and they are trying to get more temporary winter housing sites approved.

 The coalition has recently revealed its latest overflow site. According to a press release sent to ABC4 News:

The proposed temporary winter housing site is the Airport Inn Hotel at 2333 W. North Temple and will open an additional 100-120 beds in the state’s homeless resource system.

The addition of space at the Airport Inn Hotel would put Salt Lake County’s emergency shelter and overflow capacity at between 1,944 and 2,030 beds, well beyond the 1,717 beds available in January 2020 which included the additional space at the Sugarhouse Temporary Shelter.

The agency charged with providing the extra help now needs help as well to meet the current demand.

We are grateful to Salt Lake City for once again stepping up to support the state’s unsheltered population through the winter months, and we are so thankful to the owner of the Airport Inn Hotel for coming to the table with a creative solution to the winter shelter needs,” says Jean Hill, Co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. “The need for sufficient winter shelter in Utah is a responsibility leaders statewide play a role in.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also sent a statement explaining that she thinks there should be more support available:

“Salt Lake City has often risen above and beyond our role and our resources to make sure everyone has the option of a warm, safe place to sleep, but let’s be clear: it is not Salt Lake City’s role to address the statewide problem of too few shelter beds.” 

“For the second winter in a row, our City has had to help fill gaps in the homeless services system. The system of determining sufficient winter shelter as it currently stands is dysfunctional and a disservice to the service providers, residents and businesses in the area, and most of all, to individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Man clearing snow from camp after Salt Lake City Snowstorm

A new overflow facility opened in the Millcreek area, too. Switchpoint will operate both the Airport and Millcreek facilities.

“Because of the pandemic it was critical for us to find a space that would allow for adequate distancing between individuals or households, and the unique opportunity of utilizing hotel rooms also allows us to shelter more couples, which is an acute need right now,” says Carol Hollowell, executive director of Switchpoint. 

Mayor Mendenhall says, “I applaud the city of Millcreek for supporting the 60-bed temporary transitional housing that opened this week.  I commend our Salt Lake City Council for acting quickly to respond to the Coalition’s request for necessary, formal action to allow a shelter with twice as many beds in our city.  I look to the other cities in Salt Lake County and beyond to become active participants in this conversation. Salt Lake City knows it’s hard, it’s unpopular, and it stretches already overstretched resources, but ensuring people have access to shelter is the right thing to do.”

Salt Lake Police watching over camp to prevent crime

Getting the homeless out of the cold this winter is not an easy task, but Salt Lake County, and Salt Lake City, working with many of the agencies like the Volunteers of America, The Road Home, Salt Lake County Health are trying to do the best they can for an underserved and vulnerable part of our population.

Visit ABC4.com Tuesday afternoon, December 22, for part 2 of Homeless in Utah.

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