Watch your step in Salt Lake County's tent towns

Published June 20, 2011 2:00 pm
County officials say it's a short-term fix to keep colonies from growing.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lowell Bodily's first piece of advice for visiting Salt Lake County's hidden but abundant tent towns is to look down.

"Watch where you step because you might be sorry if you don't — a lot of human feces."

Later on the tour, he will point out the faded 2-liter Pepsi bottle full of a murky liquid in a pile of garbage left by long-gone transients: "That bottle there, that's not soda pop. That's urine."

Bodily's job as an environmental health specialist with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department is to clean up transient camps for just those indelicate reasons. The makeshift camps are found mainly in the foothills and along the Jordan River, though Bodily said he's getting calls to clean up make-do homes in residential neighborhoods. He said he recently removed an HVAC system-turned-shelter from a downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood.

By Salt Lake Valley Health Department code, it's illegal to set up living quarters on public or private property that isn't approved for camping.

But that hasn't stopped the creation of an estimated 200 camps a year in the county. It's hard to know if the number of campers is up or down, though the number tends to increase with the rising temperatures.

In uprooting the worst — the largest and dirtiest — of the camps, the health department says it is eliminating a public health threat and a nuisance.

But it's admittedly a temporary fix.

"When you talk about a transient camp, you think of the hobo riding the rails," said Kerry Cramer, Bodily's boss and supervisor of the department's sanitation and safety bureau. That image is outdated, he said, pointing to the problems caused by the lack of bathrooms and the buildup of other solid waste, which can include drug paraphernalia and pornography.

"We're never going to get rid of them," Cramer adds. But, "if you keep them moving around, they don't get as large as if you leave them alone."

Standing on trails above Victory Road with a sweeping view of city skyscrapers to the south, refineries to the north and a railroad yard to the west, Bodily can easily point out three abandoned transient camps. All are unseen from the road that connects the Capitol to Davis County. The camps — now just garbage dumps — are tucked into natural enclosures of rocks or bushes.

In the heaps of trash, there are clothes, tent poles, tarps and empty bottles of soda, vodka, peanut butter and cooking oil.

"I don't see any indication of drugs," Bodily says, overlooking one garbage pit. "Until we actually start digging into it, we really don't know. I had one cleanup where we took over 300 syringes out."

On this day, he and fellow enforcement officer Greg Langfeld are delivering what might be considered eviction notices. At the three camps they find with tents, they leave letters that say it is "unlawful to camp in a non-approved campsite" and alerting the campers that they will be back in a week to clean up everything that's leftover. They don't technically need to give a week's notice, but they say they do it so the campers can keep their possessions.

They target camps after receiving complaints. Bodily estimates he receives five to seven a week. He said the camps in Memory Grove are particularly troubling since so many families, walkers and runners are in the area as well. Last year, the duo found 15 tents up City Creek Canyon; the tenants had been there for six months.

To people who question why they can't stay, Bodily asks them a question: What do they do with their human waste? He recalls some campers along the Jordan River who said they dig a hole in the dirt — or throw it in the river.

"We're spending millions of dollars to beautify the Jordan River on the parkway and then that kind of stuff goes on. So all that money's for what?" he asks.

The cleanup program costs a portion of the price of Bodily and Langfeld's salary, plus a truck. In the past, the health department partnered with the Sheriff's Office so that inmates could do the cleanup, but budget cuts meant there weren't deputies available to supervise the inmates.

On average, Bodily and Langfeld spend one day a week on transient camps; the rest of the time they clean up other illegal dump sites and do other work.

While they don't expect to find any campers on this day, they come across three campsites. At one, an apparently inebriated man lying on his blanket outside his tent questions the health department's rules.

"Why you botherin' with us?" he asked, denying that the trash down the hill belonged to him.

After some back and forth about the health department's need to respond to complaints, Langfeld reminds the man: "We're gonna come back in a week, OK?"

The man, who later says he is 55, bares his one front tooth to Langfeld and brushes him off, saying he'll hide during the cleanup and come back later.

After the health department workers walk away, the man says he won't live in a homeless shelter because "that's where the crackheads and drug addicts live." He wants to be able to drink his alcohol, which the shelter doesn't allow.

He said he's been living in the hills for 13 years.

"We keep our stuff clean. There's no reason for you guys to kick us out. ... We don't got nowhere else to go."

The health department can refer camp residents to the Road Home shelter or, if they're veterans, to the Veterans Administration. But they say they don't find many takers.

"There are some folks — that's what they do [is camp]. That's how they like it," said Kathy Bray, president of Volunteers of America Utah, which works with the same population the health department targets. Others may live on the streets because they're uncomfortable with crowds of the shelter, she said.

The VOA tries to encourage the campers to move into the shelter, particularly after they've been visited by the health department.

"It's certainly disruptive for the individuals. There may be some health and safety concerns that warrants that action," she said. "We're just trying to help provide access to services for people and to make sure they move on time."

The VOA says the number of people living on the streets has held steady even during the down economy. That's because there is more room in the shelter due to federal stimulus money aimed at helping displaced families and a push to build housing for the chronically homeless.

Bodily and Langfeld find another campsite, with four tents housing two women and a man, along with a litter of kittens. The women say they're camping because they don't want to be in the shelter, where they say their stuff would be stolen. They say they can't afford rent. Beth, 46, says she has food stamps and is waiting for disability payments. She said she's lived in this spot since November.

Alice, 66, says she is awaiting approval for housing assistance. She wants away from the foothill's cougars and snakes.

Asked where she'll go, now that she's been given notice to leave, Alice says: "We'll have to find another camp spot."


Do you have a sanitation or safety complaint?

To report a complaint, call 801-313-6641, or file an online report.

> slvhealth.org/cfml/sanitation



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