Tensions flared between protesters and police in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday as dozens of people experiencing homelessness were forced to leave the camps where they were living.
A front loader was used at one point to move discarded clothing into a dump truck. One couple at 600 West and 300 South, who declined to talk to The Salt Lake Tribune, struggled as they attempted to pile their things onto an overfilled shopping cart. A box on top of their belongings and a green tarp fell to the ground as they moved.
“These are people’s only homes,” said Mickie Hunter, who went to the camp-clearing in support of its homeless occupants, “and now they are gone with nowhere [for them] to go.”
The Salt Lake County Health Department began clearing encampments in the Rio Grande area on Wednesday, and their work continued Thursday at 600 West and 300 South, and 900 South and 300 West on Thursday, with some people still packing up as night fell.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, speaking at a virtual public safety meeting with the Pioneer Park Coalition on Thursday night, said the cleanup came after “weeks and weeks” of outreach at the camp through social workers.
“They have gone out and they have offered homeless vouchers, they’ve offered resources,” he said. “We have tried very hard on the front end to make sure that people that are experiencing homelessness, that they have a place to go that we can get them to if they need a ride or a place to store their stuff. But at some time, it’s just not safe for them to be amassed in these encampments, and it’s not safe for the community.”
Health department officials, who conduct the regular cleanups in partnership with the city, say they are meant to mitigate public health hazards in the community as a result of camping. But the cleanups have been targeted over the past year by activists who oppose the efforts, arguing that officials are not doing enough to help the homeless and are just pushing them from place to place.
Two people were arrested during flare-ups over the cleanup on Wednesday. Detective Michael Ruff said one person was arrested for disorderly conduct, interfering with an officer and failing to disclose their identity. The other was arrested for criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, being in the roadway and resisting arrest.
The cleanup at 900 South and 300 West on Thursday also became heated between law enforcement and activists at times. Six officers stood silently as people yelled profanities and told them to “go back to Europe,” arguing that it isn’t fair to kick people out of the area.
Victoria Crosby, an advocate with Multicultural Teenagers Love for Unity who said she lived on the streets for four years with her children, said that the police were violating people’s rights by forcing them to leave.
“We are protecting the streets from these police officers who think it’s right to push people around,” she said. “[Mayor Erin] Mendenhall better prepare herself because we are coming for her.”
Community organizers have been providing nightly meals and supplies at the site of these encampments.
Both the size and visibility of Salt Lake City’s homeless encampments have grown in recent months amid the coronavirus, as public buildings where people experiencing homelessness could spend time, get clean water and use bathrooms have been shut down. And many people on the streets have told The Salt Lake Tribune that they would rather sleep outside than in the shelter amid fear of coronavirus outbreaks in a congregate setting.
Community members and Salt Lake City Council members have worried, though, that the homeless encampments are getting out of control, and businesses have complained that people on the streets have had conflicts with customers, making it harder to stay afloat.
During the Pioneer Park Coalition meeting on Thursday, homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson asked public safety leaders for answers about what they were doing to get services to people experiencing homelessness and to address rising criminality in the city.
Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said there are legitimate concerns about COVID-19 in the shelters and thinks a vaccine, which could be provided to people experiencing homelessness as soon as February, will help stave off some of the issues in the encampments.
He also said there is a need to ensure encampments don’t grow too large — though key to that equation, he said, is that there is enough room in the shelters.
That has been a moving target for several weeks, as the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has worked to identify emergency overflow shelter for people experiencing homelessness as the days grow colder.
The coalition recently located a temporary space in Millcreek, opening up an additional 60 to 75 beds. The Salt Lake City Council will hold a special meeting on Friday to consider whether to allow a temporary overflow space at a hotel at 2333 W. North Temple.
The city has also recently taken a new approach to encampments as part of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s Community Commitment Program, which has emphasized expanding street outreach to people experiencing homelessness alongside a focus on neighborhood cleanup.
An officer at 900 South and 300 West said outreach workers were on scene Thursday and that they had offered information about shelters and resources. He also said people were told ahead of time that the Salt Lake County Health Department was shutting the camps down.
A man who identified himself only as Tino told The Tribune that he had already been moved out of the encampment at 600 West and 300 South but came back to try to help his friends pack up.
When the police told him to leave, he said he asked if they were going to arrest him. When they said no, he joked that he would be happy to be arrested because he would get food and a bed and could get his laundry done.
Tino said the homeless camps are larger than normal this year and there isn’t enough room at the shelters for everyone. He said some couples don’t want to go to a shelter because they fear being separated.
“They would rather freeze their butts off and be together,” he said.
He said he wasn’t sure where he would go next. He was waiting to see where his friends ended up so they could keep looking out for one another.
Editor’s note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.