People experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City aren’t sure where they will go now that they have been forced out of the camps where they were living downtown.
Dozens of unhoused people had to move on Wednesday and Thursday because the Salt Lake County Health Department cleared encampments in the Rio Grande area. Health department officials said they cleared the camps to decrease public safety hazards.
A group of people pushed out of Rio Grande have taken shelter under a nearby overpass, but police have already told them they can’t stay.
About a dozen tents were huddled together around train tracks under the overpass on Saturday evening. As temperatures dropped, people congregated around small campfires on the tracks.
One of them was Shawna Gardner, who said she has been unhoused for four years after experiencing domestic violence.
Gardner said police came by the underpass on Friday to offer resources and advise people to leave before the health department comes to move them. According to a spokeswoman with the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, there is space available in county shelters, but Gardner said she doesn’t want to go to a shelter. She said she doesn’t like groups and has a hard time getting along with the other women. Last time she was in a shelter, she thought some of the women were unsafe to be around.
The Rio Grande area was coming together as a community before it was broken up, Gardner said. She said there is more crime in newer camps because you have to meet new people and new groups.
Gardner said some people lost their tents and clothing when the city brought in a front loader to clear things out of the Rio Grande camps, but not her.
“I stood in front of the front loader so they couldn’t get mine,” she said.
Another woman walking by said people had to watch as their things were “bulldozed.”
Micheal Zufelt, who has been on and off the streets for nine years, said he lost his tent when he had to leave the camp where he had been living. He said a friend gave him a new tent and he tried to spend a night in a Sears parking lot. Police officers told him he had to leave the parking lot and didn’t give him time to finish packing, so he lost that tent too, he said.
“Iʼm appalled by how Iʼm being treated,” he said. “We are human beings too.”
Cerberus, Zulfelt’s brown pit bull, stood by his side while he spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune. Zufelt said he can’t stay at a shelter because he thinks pit bulls get a “bad rap” and Cerberus wouldn’t be welcome. He said he wants to register the dog as an emotional support animal.
Service and comfort animals are allowed in resource centers in Salt Lake City.
Zufelt said if it were summer, he would hike into the mountains and pitch a tent. He is hoping that he will have a stable place to stay in the coming weeks with help from a friend. Until then, he isn’t sure where he will go.
Salt Lake City’s homeless encampments grew in size and visibility this year at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic shut down public buildings where people could spend time, get clean water, and use bathrooms. Many people on the streets have told The Tribune that they prefer sleeping outside to staying in shelters because they fear coronavirus outbreaks in cramped quarters.
Community members and Salt Lake City Council members have said they are concerned the camps are getting out of control. Businesses say people on the streets have made it harder to stay afloat, because they get into conflicts with customers.
Ty Bellamy, founder of the homelessness assistance group Black Lives for Humanity Movement, said people under the overpass don’t have anywhere to go if police push them out. She said they will have to keep moving around to new spots until they have a safe place to stay permanently.
Bellamy said the city should put tiny homes or even containers, RVs and old buses on a plot of land for people experiencing homelessness. Bellamy, who is an interior designer, said she knows electricians, construction workers and plumbers who would be willing to refurbish containers and buses to turn them into homes. She said she is trying to raise money to buy land for that purpose.
For now she is helping people pack suitcases so they won’t lose their belongings when they are forced to move again. She said other advocates are scouting for places they can stay next.
Salt Lake Police Lt. Steve Wooldridge, the spokesperson on duty on Saturday, said he wasn’t sure whether officers went to the overpass. He said the police enforce trespassing and illegal camping laws. Wooldridge said police help refer unhoused people to homelessness resources through the city government and its partners.
Editor’s note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.