Operation Rio Grande, executed in August with the intent of driving homeless campers and other miscreants out of downtown, proved successful, but Salt Lake City still has homeless people — and they want a good night’s sleep.
But campers find themselves in something of a conundrum: There is no place for them to go — save The Road Home shelter — in a city that has outlawed camping. And they refuse to go to the shelter, citing theft, drug use and violence.
The homeless have sought shelter in neighborhoods, parks and canyons — and Library Square between City Hall and the Public Safety Building.
Salt Lake City police, on the other hand, are faced with enforcing the no camping ordinance and sometimes cite homeless people for illegal camping. And when the campers don’t show up at their court hearings, a bench warrants are issued.
The next time around, they are arrested and booked, only to be set free. And around and around it goes.
Homeless people at Library Square say they’ve had enough.
“They say, ‘Move on,’” said Gerald R. Phelps, 54. “They’re trying to give me camping tickets. They are trying to make me a criminal. I don’t have any warrants, except for camping tickets.”
People interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday at Library Square say they are awakened more than once a night — and as many as three times — and told to move along. It wears them down and they get agitated, said David Rigby, 45, who has been homeless for four years.
Sgt. Brandon Shearer explained that police cite individuals for camping only when they refuse to move. He noted, too, that the Police Department recently has had numerous complaints about campers on Library Square.
“Ultimately, our goal is to get them help, not arrest them,” Shearer said. “We ask them, ‘Let us help you through the process.’ But they have to be willing to get help.”
The department has an outreach team of social workers who help homeless people connect with services and resources. But the system is overwhelmed and wait lists can be long. And people without cellphones and internet find it challenging to coordinate with various agencies.
Ronald and Katherine Barrett, who have been staying near Library Square, say they just want affordable housing.
“We want people to be able to move along and get through this [homelessness],” Ronald Barrett said.
Natalie Stradling, an outreach worker for the Downtown Alliance business group, said homeless people are often confused about the rules they must follow.
“There is a lack of communication between [library] security and police on how the laws should be enforced,” she said. “There is inconsistency. [The campers] don’t know where they can be and when they can be there.”
Since Operation Rio Grande, police have had to keep homeless people from camping, said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit agency that aids the underprivileged.
Operation Rio Grande “has put more pressure on [homeless] people and they have scattered around,” he said. “And there is pressure on the Police Department to deal with it in some way.”
The lack of affordable housing makes finding solutions for homelessness difficult, said Deeda Seed, an advocate for the homeless.
“As a community, we are going to keep having this problem until we have more affordable housing,” she said. “In the meantime, we’re making it illegal to be a homeless person.”
Until there is housing for everyone, Seed said, authorities ought to consider mitigating the problem with restraint.
“Perhaps we ought to just let them sleep,” she said. “It’s probably OK for people to sleep on Library Square at night.”