Nestled on either side of an out-of-use railroad track, dozens of tents reach toward the top of a Salt Lake City overpass — a concrete umbrella that provides a reprieve from snow, hail and rain but keeps in the smell and sound of crackling fires and the laughter and shouts of the people who live here.
This is the scene at Camp Last Hope, a homeless encampment located in an industrial area in Utah’s capital city near 900 South and 500 West that has been home to dozens of unsheltered residents since early last month.
The camp has fluctuated in size over the weeks but appears to be one of the larger ones Salt Lake City has seen in recent years and is also one of the most organized, with a level of coordination and cooperation residents say they’ve rarely seen on the streets.
It’s “a totally different environment,” said Michael Sr. Najera, 52, during a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Totally,” added his girlfriend, Brandy DeGarmo, who contrasted this camp with their previous one on 700 South. “Over there, it’s arguing, fussing, fighting constantly,” she said. “And over here it’s really relaxing.”
Najera and DeGarmo are both volunteers at the camp as well as residents. DeGarmo, 47, helps sort clothing donations, which are stored in a series of wood pallets on one end of the camp, between a food distribution center and a locked medicine cabinet. Najera is a “wood guy,” as DeGarmo calls him — a volunteer who helps cut and distribute pallets to fire pits across the camp.
“I like working outside,” he said while taking a break from chopping wood on a recent afternoon. “I like that I can give a little because I’m getting a little. I like to give back, you know?”
Many camp members have a role to play in this small community. But they agree that it wouldn’t be possible without the work of Ty Bellamy, a community organizer with the Black Lives for Humanity Movement who helped set up the camp and has been sleeping there most nights since it opened on Dec. 11.
Bellamy — whose role is something between camp host, camp mom and camp security — enforces a strict set of rules that aim to prohibit violence and widespread alcohol and drug abuse. She does a walk-through of the camp every morning to ensure it’s kept clean and has enlisted a daily clean needle exchange. She hosts regular meetings with residents to hear their concerns and find ways to improve the camp. And she’s worked to provide those who live there with CPR training and a kit of naloxone, a lifesaving overdose reversal drug.
“I don’t let anything go on down here, anything that could get them pushed,” Bellamy said in a recent interview with The Tribune. “It can’t be dirty and we can’t have any drama. We cannot have the police come here. We cannot have the health department come here.”
The Salt Lake County Health Department has yet to schedule a date to abate the camp, which is on private property. But Bellamy and residents worry that a cleanup is impending amid requests from the property owners and as health department officials raise concerns about potential environmental and health hazards at the site.
New levels of community outreach
Salt Lake City is no stranger to homeless encampments, which often crop up in parks, near social services and on public property. But both people experiencing homelessness and advocates agree that Camp Last Hope appears to represent a shift in community organizing and the structure of homeless encampments in the Salt Lake Valley.
Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Utah, which runs a Salt Lake City women’s shelter and conducts street outreach for people experiencing homelessness, said this camp “seems different.”
In the past, “we’ve seen groups that would come in, like every Friday they’re going to bring food over to a certain location,” she said.
But over the last year or so, she’s noticed that community members have undertaken more sustained efforts to help the unsheltered — something that could be attributed, in part, to the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed many public spaces and made people experiencing homelessness more visible in the community as a result.
“Not sure if that’s causation, if that’s linked exactly, but it would make sense,” Bray said. “It’s more visible, so more people may be considering what they might want to do about it or how they might help.”
Dale Keller, Salt Lake County’s bureau manager of environmental health, said homeless camps in the Salt Lake Valley typically have “little organization” and quickly run into issues around garbage containment and human waste. A recent cleanup of Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area, for example, produced 600 syringes among the many tons of garbage.
“There does seem to be some sense of pragmatic organization to it,” he said of Camp Last Hope, but noted that “I don’t have anything to compare it to because I haven’t walked through it.”
The residents in Camp Last Hope see this increased organization as a positive development, with DeGarmo, Najera and others saying they feel safer there and have had fewer conflicts with fellow campers. But others have been critical of community organizers that provide food and clothing outside of shelters, arguing that street services can keep people from accessing dedicated case management.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she appreciates the “heart and good intentions” of the community members who provide resources to people on the streets but says it creates “extremely devastating hurdles” to connecting people with more formal housing services at the homeless resource centers.
“Unfortunately, when a homeless individual’s basic needs like food are met by staying on the street and in places like Camp Last Hope, the unintended consequence is that it keeps people homeless and it dissolves the service providers’ ability to connect with those people and provide access to actual shelter and a pathway out of homelessness,” she said.
Bray said she didn’t have a strong opinion on whether community organizers had stymied efforts to get people into services. The organization’s street outreach team has continued to work with people at Camp Last Hope and in conjunction with community organizers there in an effort to get people off the streets and into housing and ensure people’s needs are met.
“It’s possible that some people will feel less of a need to go inside if they feel like they have what they need right there,” she said. “Our general messaging over the years has been to help people connect with service providers so that they can access medical [care], shelter, detox, whatever resources they need in the community by people who are specifically trained to intervene and to assist and support homeless individuals.”
Several people at Camp Last Hope who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune said they don’t want to go to the Salt Lake City area’s homeless resource centers for a variety of reasons, including distaste for the rules in the shelters and fear of getting COVID or being separated from a partner.
If they weren’t at Camp Last Hope, some said they’d be camping somewhere else — though several expressed interest in the new Airport Inn Hotel, a temporary emergency overflow shelter the Salt Lake City Council approved last month. Bray said Volunteers of America’s street outreach team helped move 15 people out of the camp and into that shelter this month.
In contrast to criticisms that community organizers might be keeping people on the streets, Bellamy said her ultimate vision is to end the need for an encampment like Camp Last Hope by creating a tiny home village for people experiencing homelessness. She recently spoke with a shed company that said it could make them for anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 and she thinks it’s feasible to fundraise among community donors on the lower end of that scale.
“We’re not trying to be fancy,” she said. “We’re trying to get them housed. We’re trying to provide safety. We’re trying to provide peace, privacy somewhere, you know what I mean?”
And her conviction that she wants to get people into services is so strong that Bellamy said she plans to continue sleeping at the site “until they are all either in hotels for the winter or until we get them permanently housed.”
The fact that organizers at Camp Last Hope have been conscious of the potential environmental and health concerns at the camp is part of what’s kept it operating for so long without an abatement, said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
“It isn’t presenting the same level of hazards that camps historically have,” he said.
But that’s not to say there aren’t any of the health hazards that normally spur the health department to conduct a “cleanup” of a site, he said. There isn’t a restroom at Camp Last Hope, so human waste disposal could be a concern. And there are other environmental health considerations that can come as a result of outdoor living.
Along with environmental and health risks, two other factors often weigh into the department’s decision to conduct a cleanup: requests from a municipality and complaints from the public or a property owner. Both of those apply here, Rupp said.
Union Pacific, which is one of the landowners on the site, told The Tribune that it was aware of the encampment and was working to determine the “appropriate next steps” for abatement.
Raquel Espinoza, a company spokeswoman, said the organization has compassion for those who lack permanent housing but that safety “remains our highest priority. Trespassing on railroad property is dangerous for the homeless, the public as well as Union Pacific employees.”
With all this in mind, Rupp said he expects Camp Last Hope could be cleaned up anywhere from the end of this month to early February, noting that “the city is really driving the timeline, unless the health department sees a really overt public health concern.”
But while many residents say they recognize that the camp is located on private property and likely has numbered days, they have begun to feel rooted there — and some maintain a tenuous hope that they’ll be allowed to stay.
Bellamy said she’s worried the residents will be pushed again and said she’s sleeping at the camp, in part, to ensure she’s on-site if the health department, police or property owners show up. She said she plans to do all she can to fight for the residents to stay and has even organized a calling campaign to Union Pacific asking that they “not raid or move the homeless encampment until after winter is over.”
“I’m going to stand my ground and I’m going to fight,” she told The Tribune. “Where are we going to go? This ground is abandoned. Even when we pulled the public records, it’s been unused for 20 years. You want the rocks to be all alone? Seriously? What is it going to hurt you as long as we keep it clean?”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Bellamy added. “If they want us to leave, they can give us hotel vouchers. And then we’ll load everybody up and we’ll take them there.”
Editor’s note • Anyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.