Have Salt Lake City homeless encampments gotten out of control again?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Donald packs up his camping supplies on 500 West in Salt Lake City as he gets ready to go to work on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. He is one of many unsheltered people camping in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A mattress sits on a park strip, the grass yellowing around it in the summer sun. A woman hand-washes her laundry in a bucket, while a few feet away a couple seek refuge from the heat under a shady tree, all their belongings spread out on a tarp beside them.

The scene on the median near The Gateway mall this day is nothing new. Encampments of people experiencing homelessness have for years comprised a piece of Salt Lake City’s downtown landscape.

But growing choruses of state leaders, Salt Lake City Council members and business owners believe the encampments have gotten out of hand this summer. And they want to see immediate action taken to address the issue.

“It’s becoming almost uncontrollable,” Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano said during a briefing on encampment cleanups at Tuesday’s council meeting. “And I think we need to get ahead of it as much as we can.”

The size and location of Salt Lake City’s encampments have been affected in recent months by a complex confluence of disparate realities. The city and Salt Lake County have shifted their response to camp cleanups as a result of COVID-19, and the pandemic has also made some people experiencing homelessness more likely to camp. Police have been directed elsewhere amid a number of raucous protests this summer. And the dwindling of Operation Rio Grande has further shifted resources away from encampments.

“It’s like this perfect storm,” said Salt Lake City Police Department spokesman Greg Wilking.

Caught in the middle are the business owners who say conflicts between unsheltered individuals and customers are making it even harder to keep their small companies afloat — as well as the campers who feel they have nowhere else to go.

‘We have nowhere’

David Litvack, a senior policy adviser in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, said he’s unsure whether there are more people camping because of COVID-19 than in a normal summer, when the unsheltered population tends to balloon.

“All our public buildings … like city libraries where individuals go during the day are closed,” he said. “So are we seeing more individuals on the street during the day than we typically do because of that? Or are we seeing an actual increase in the number of individuals unsheltered? That’s difficult to really fully grasp.”

The closure of public buildings has also limited restroom access for people experiencing homelessness, leaving some with few choices but to find a place to relieve themselves on the streets. A recent analysis of city data showed about 46% of the complaints that have been filed in the city’s SLC Mobile App about human bio waste over the past year have come in since March 6, when the state saw its first coronavirus case.

Kirsten Renee Chief, who’s been camping near The Gateway this summer, said she’s found it difficult to find restrooms during the pandemic. A Maverik station near the mall has been letting campers use restrooms — one reason she’s settled in this particular spot.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kirsten Renee Chief talks about her experience camping in Salt Lake City during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

Aside from the convenience store, there are few other places to find toilets, the 39-year-old Chief said. ”We have nowhere, especially when the Maverik closes, for the restrooms.”

Finding clean water is also a challenge. Chief said she and her friends do their laundry in buckets, with water collected from nearby fountains or from the sprinklers.

The police won’t permit campers to pitch tents, she said, so they sleep on blankets or bare mattresses, exposed to the elements. They have to move their bedding out of the way when the sprinklers come on, she said, and wait until about midnight to return.

Still, Chief said, she’d rather be here than in a shelter, where she said the staff can be cruel and capricious.

Sara Pont, who’s camping nearby with her husband and dog, Zeus, said her family members are worried that they’d have to split up if they checked into a shelter. She’s also concerned about exposure to COVID-19 in the resource centers.

“There’s no way to social distance there,” Pont, 32, said. “I’m sure they require masks. … But still, with the close quarters like that, you never know what you can catch. And that’s scary.”

The pandemic hit Salt Lake County’s homeless shelters hard early on, with more than 190 confirmed cases within the 300-bed men’s homeless resource center in South Salt Lake, but conditions have since become more controlled. As of Friday afternoon, there were eight confirmed cases within the area’s homeless shelters.

Michele Goldberg, medical director for the Fourth Street Clinic, which serves homeless individuals, said she’s heard from patients who say they’re uncomfortable staying in a shelter during the pandemic and prefer to camp.

There are, she said, “risks and benefits to both situations.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Fourth Street Clinic in Salt Lake City adds a triage tent next to their building in anticipation of what is to come to deal with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Though resource centers have worked hard to curb the spread of COVID-19, there are drawbacks to congregate settings, Goldberg said. Camping can be an “acceptable form of social distancing,” she said, but it’s also harder for people to wash their hands and sanitize.

Goldberg said her clinic is also concerned about campers’ ability to keep cool during the blistering summer days and has treated several people with severe sunburns.

Aside from the health concerns, there’s also little room available at the three resource centers, which have been at or near capacity all summer, according to Christina Davis, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Workforce Services.

The men’s resource center in South Salt Lake has reduced its capacity from 300 to 254 during the pandemic to allow for social distancing. And overflow options are limited, Davis added, although a county program is offering hotel lodging for individuals who need to be isolated during COVID-19.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is working to address space constraints for the coming cold months.

‘Sleeping on the sidewalks’

As Salt Lake City’s police officers were called to respond to almost daily protests across the city this summer, that left fewer resources for addressing issues at encampments, said Wilking, the spokesman with the Salt Lake City Police Department.

The department has had to prioritize which calls to respond to. And if it comes down to a man with a gun or a call about an encampment, the former is “going to get the attention.”

“The secondary is going to be those transient camps,” he said.

Wilking said efforts to reduce jail populations in response to the coronavirus pandemic have also had an effect on the size of Salt Lake City’s encampments, as well as on the workload of the city’s officers.

“Some of the people that should be locked up and in timeout are not being locked up or kept, and you have people being released from prison early because of COVID,” he said. “They’re all out on the street now.”

The pandemic has also shifted the county’s response to cleaning up encampments. Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the county paused cleanups for a few weeks from mid-April to mid-June. Cleanups have since resumed, he said, but may have slowed, because all county employees have been asked to take on contact tracing along with their regular duties.

At the direction of the city, Rupp said the county has also taken a different approach to which encampments it chooses to clean up during the pandemic, focusing on those that pose an “immediate” public health risk, such as with human waste or syringes.

Also at play is the winding down of Operation Rio Grande, a law enforcement campaign that deployed dozens of uniformed state troopers to the Pioneer Park neighborhood in a crackdown against lawlessness. The $67 million campaign, which was also designed to address homelessness, culminated last year with the closure and razing of The Road Home’s emergency shelter in Rio Grande and a shift to three smaller resource centers dispersed around the Salt Lake City area.

Accordingly, by July 1, the Utah Highway Patrol pulled its uniformed troopers out of the Pioneer Park area — and state officials say problems are creeping back since their departure.

Chief Special Agent Brian Redd with the Utah Department of Public Safety told state lawmakers earlier this month that his agency is aware of several street camps in Salt Lake City and has been getting reports of “increasing aggression by unsheltered individuals.”

“We need to reverse the current trajectory,” he warned the state’s criminal code evaluation task force.

Rep. Paul Ray, who co-chairs the task force, said he’d visited the Rio Grande neighborhood just before the meeting and wasn’t happy with what he saw.

“There’s encampments again, there’s people sleeping on the sidewalks again, and there is zero law enforcement down there,” said Ray, R-Clearfield, who accused the city of failing to police the area.

But Bernie Hart, who helps run a street tai chi program for the homeless, said Operation Rio Grande and other efforts to displace campers are part of a broken system that is failing the city’s most marginalized. Instead of helping people, Hart said, Operation Rio Grande just moved them from place to place.

“That was common knowledge,” he said. “They were blowing leaves around the city, and no one was picking them up.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Josh Valdez talks about his experience camping in Salt Lake City during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

‘It’s just our turn’

Deborah Harries, who manages and co-owns a number of properties in Salt Lake City, said she feels for unsheltered individuals who are struggling during COVID-19 to find clean water, restrooms and other basic necessities.

At the same time, she said, her tenants are barely hanging on amid the pandemic and feel that conflicts between unsheltered individuals and customers are posing challenges in keeping their small businesses afloat.

“We’ve got to support these small businesses,” she warned, “or else we’re going to end up with a city full of Wendy’s and Crown Burgers and McDonald’s.”

HSL, an American eatery that occupies one of Harries’ buildings at 418 E. 200 South, has complained that homeless individuals have been flipping their electrical breakers. One person walked onto the restaurant’s patio and grabbed a customer’s glass of wine, she said. Other people have followed diners to their cars.

Salt Lake City police officers have been responsive, Harries said, but their suggestions have been “pretty ludicrous” — and have included ripping out the shady trees and grass that offer homeless individuals refuge from the summer heat.

Instead, she’d like to see officials open more public restrooms around the city and invest in additional social services to help people off the streets.

But in the short term, she said, “I don’t think any of us know what the answer is.”

Across town, near the intersection of 500 West and 900 South, another commercial property owner has been imploring city, county or state leaders to do something about an encampment that has formed there over the past couple of months.

Stacey Beever, office manager for Salt Lake City Metro LLC, said police have suggested putting up “No Trespassing” signs around the property perimeter. But by and large, Beever said, her company’s pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

One of Salt Lake City Metro’s tenants, the owner of a bridal shop called Fuse Weddings and Events, filmed a man chasing another with what appeared to be a knife. On another occasion, an unsheltered man who was naked and covered in muck wandered into the parking lot. The incident happened on a busy Saturday in full view of customers who were heading into the bridal store.

“She’s got people coming in,” Beever said, “and she’s like, ‘The fire department and police department are out here hosing off a nude man.‘”

The store owner has told her landlords she’d consider vacating the building and setting up shop elsewhere unless something changes.

Salt Lake City Metro’s property manager, Ross Lingwall, said his cleanup crew comes regularly to pick up needles, condoms and human waste littered around the site.

But he acknowledges that the unsheltered individuals have only pitched their tents on the curb near his property because they’ve been compelled to leave other sites — and that the cycle will keep repeating itself until officials find a better solution.

“I assume that it’s just our turn for the homeless population that just found our corner,” he said. “They know they can hang out until they’re harassed enough where they move somewhere else.”

‘Look at our systems’

In response to complaints about camping, west-side residents and business owners have been holding weekly meetings with Councilman Andrew Johnston, said Nigel Swaby, vice chair of the Fairpark Community Council.

He said these conversations have been productive: Community members have organized neighborhood cleanups, he said, and Rocky Mountain Power has coordinated with the city to install more street lighting on North Temple to discourage camping.

Still, forcing unsheltered individuals away from businesses and main thoroughfares just pushes them into neighborhoods and toward the Jordan River — also not an ideal outcome from Swaby’s perspective.

As part of a long-term measure to address the impact of unsheltered homelessness on the community, Salt Lake City is working to develop an encampment resolution program that would provide a pathway to addressing what the city deems as “entrenched” camps.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kristen Tincher talks about her experience camping in Salt Lake City during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

That plan, which is still being drafted, would focus on coordinating with service providers to find a place for campers to go by an agreed-upon date — like to a shelter, treatment facility or into housing. The city would then close down the camp and take some steps “like increased police presence or implementing environmental changes” to prevent campers from setting back up in the area, according to Michelle Hoon, the project and policy manager for the city’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team.

“Other communities use a similar model and have found some success with it, but it takes a good amount of time and resources to do properly, so it’s a plan that we would want to use only in situations of severe entrenchment,” she said in an email.

During a briefing on encampments last week, several City Council members, including Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, expressed support for such a plan. But they also called for more short-term solutions, citing an uptick in the number of complaints they’ve received about encampments in recent weeks.

“The concern in District 4 is that the encampments are growing, the encampments are dirtier and they pose a health hazard to the neighbors,” Valdemoros said.

To address community impacts before the fall comes, the council has expressed interest in exploring solutions that range from increased neighborhood cleanups to grants that could help affected businesses.

Litvack, from the mayor’s office, said that conversation is important and necessary. But he said the city also needs to maintain its focus on the systemic barriers that can keep people from exiting homelessness for good.

“While we’re working with individuals to meet their immediate needs, while we are working with the community to address the negative impacts — bio waste, the garbage — we also have to look at our systems and make sure that we’re providing the opportunity and there’s not additional barriers put in place,” he said in an interview. “With all of that, it’s so important that we constantly come back to housing.”