More than 100 people protest Salt Lake County Health Department for homeless camp removals

Demonstators held signs saying “a person’s a person no matter how homeless” and “protect and respect don’t eject.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Nemelka joins Black Lives Matter and other groups, to protest the way the health department has been forcing people experiencing homelessness to move in the middle of a pandemic and the coldest time of the year, in front of the Salt Lake Public Health Center on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.

More than 100 advocates for unhoused people protested outside the Salt Lake County Health Department’s building at 610 S. 200 East on Friday because of recent homeless encampment clearings ordered by the Health Department.

They held signs saying “a person’s a person no matter how homeless” and “protect and respect don’t eject.” Activists gave speeches and chanted “Black Lives Matter.” Carl Moore, co-founder of Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support, said a prayer and sang a Native American song.

Dozens of unhoused people were forced to move when camps in the Rio Grande area were cleared last week. City officials brought in a front loader to put clothing and other items into a dumpster. Unhoused people who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune said people lost their personal possessions during the clearings.

“Every year they show up with bulldozers and dump trucks and they throw away the belongings of people who don’t have anything,” said Black Lives Matter Utah founder Lex Scott.

She said it is especially cruel that the Health Department, which conducts regular encampment cleanups throughout the year, decided to clear the camps in the middle of the winter during a pandemic. She said the department is taking away coats and tents from people with no heat, though health department officials refute such claims, saying they only throw away abandoned items.

Scott also argued that the Health Department is going against advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by clearing encampments. The CDC says encampments should not be cleared if individual housing isn’t an option for the people living in them.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC says on its website. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Some unhoused people in Salt Lake City have told The Tribune they don’t want to go to shelters because they are afraid of COVID spreading in close quarters. There have been a few outbreaks in the Salt Lake City area’s homeless resource centers, but the coronavirus has largely been kept under control. There were 65 active positive cases across the shelters in the county as of Wednesday.

Scott argued people should be given hotel vouchers and transportation if they are forced to move and said people are being pushed around town with no where to go.

Moore said unhoused people don’t have many things and they need everything they have to survive. He said he thinks there is a “disconnect” about what is healthy if the Health Department is throwing away people’s clothing during the winter and that the Health Department should be more “merciful” to unhoused people.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman in the Salt Lake County Health Department, said social service partners work in advance of cleanups “to ensure that the people potentially affected are aware of our planned cleanup and of the options available, including referrals to workforce services, substance use disorder treatment, mental health providers, and homeless resource centers or other shelters.”

As advocates pressed Friday for an end to encampment cleanups, the Pioneer Park Coalition — a community group focused on crime and homelessness in the Rio Grande area — presented an opposing view, arguing that “enabling” street camping “is not compassionate.”

Some people experiencing homelessness have mental health issues and those on the streets are also more likely to experience sexual assault, the group said in a statement. Additionally, the coalition argued that the camps pose a public health hazard, noting that the Health Department cleaned up garbage and used syringes during a cleanup on Friday.

“Any groups that advocate for our fellow citizens to live in this type of squalor are entirely out of touch with the destitute situation on the ground,” the statement said. “If we want to show compassion and improve our city, we need to put an end to street camping and help our unsheltered population get inside, get warm, and get the life-changing help they need.”