Salt Lake City activist allows new homeless encampment on his front lawn

Community organizer Darin Mann says “The Village Camp” is an effort to “destigmatize” people experiencing homelessness.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bryan Dax Bilanzich (left) sits by the fire along with Darin Mann (right), where a group of people experiencing homelessness have been camping on Mann's front lawn for the past week, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

Smoke billows toward the sky, tents unzip and a grill sizzles as the sun comes up on a recent morning over a quiet residential community in Salt Lake City’s Fairpark neighborhood.

The state’s capital is no stranger to encampments made up of people experiencing homelessness. But this one, set up on the front lawn of a private residence at the direction of the property owner — and where residents on this morning are cooking up a breakfast of pancakes and eggs — is unlike many the city has seen in recent memory.

“I don’t know of a case where people have opened up their home to a homeless camp,” said Darin Mann, a 31-year-old community organizer who owns the house that sits behind the tents. “We’re pioneering that.”

The Village Camp has been home over the last two weeks to anywhere from five to 15 people who have access to medicine, food and donations, as well as to the bathroom in his home. And he’s enforcing prohibitions on drug use and violence and a strict one-strike-you’re-out policy.

But so far, Mann said he hasn’t had any problems with the visitors on the third of an acre plot where he grows vegetables for the Rose Park and Fairpark neighborhoods through his nonprofit, the Village Cooperative.

“What I hope to break is this stereotype that they’re just taking handouts,” he said. “They’re really resilient and like to help out around the garden and help out [in] the space and be respectful.”

Mann started this camp on Jan. 14, in response to what he sees as inaction from Salt Lake City leaders to address homelessness and after he said recent Salt Lake County Health Department camp cleanups put increased strain on other unsheltered people in the city.

The Village Camp, Mann said, offers a safe space for people to get back on their feet — a place where they can access basic necessities, don’t have to worry about their belongings being stolen and can, at least for now, live without fear of being pushed to another spot.

“Every time we push them,” Mann said, “we put them right back at square zero.”

One man staying at the camp on the mornings The Tribune visited, who did not want to be named, said he saw the site as much calmer and safer than a normal “tent city,” which he characterized as “unpredictable” and “dangerous.”

“I just think that’s it’s a lot better environment to have somebody open their yard and pretty much their homes up to those that need it,” he said, noting that he wished more people would follow suit. “This is like compassion, almost. They are opening up their homes and they’re risking their freedom and their security to help provide us with security and comfort.”

Frederick Hidalgo, who said he has been homeless for about seven years, had moved into the camp the week before and said it already felt “like a home.”

“This is where the peace is at,” he said, warming his hands against one of several fires burning in pits spaced throughout the camp. “I love it.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frederick Hildago feeds the fire to stay warm, as he camps with other unsheltered people on Darin Mann's property, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

‘Give them some stability’

Mann said he’s received a mixed response from his neighbors since the tents went up.

Some have come over to introduce themselves to the residents and have stepped in to help feed those at the camp. But Mann said he’s heard from at least one homeowner who isn’t happy about the encampment and would like to see it gone.

He said, “ ‘We don’t want this here. We pay taxes, equal taxes, and we’re worried about the drugs and stuff like that,’” Mann recounted. “Which I told him everybody here is vetted. There’s a one strike policy. There’s absolutely no drugs here; no violence.”

David Osokow, who lives nearby, said he’s also not in favor of the encampment, which he thinks poses quality of life challenges for a community that’s already disproportionately impacted by issues related to homelessness.

“It’s his private residence,” Osokow acknowledged. “But it’s pretty disrespectful for other neighbors to one day start letting people put up camps and burn fires.”

Even if they wanted to, he added, many people in the Fairpark community don’t have the resources to fight the camp.

“We’re not a neighborhood that has a lot of money where if we didn’t like this, our only recourse really is to reach out to the city and hope they mitigate what’s going on,” he said. “Other areas like 9th and 9th, Sugar House, they would be probably litigating against this, whereas we don’t have the resources. So to kind of take advantage of our neighborhood, that’s kind of where I am a little disappointed.”

The Salt Lake County Health Department, which conducts abatements of homeless encampments on a regular basis, has received at least two complaints about the camp from people who appear to be Mann’s neighbors and want it cleared out.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the health department, noted that an encampment located on private property not zoned for overnight camping would be prohibited — even if a property owner wants it there.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raul Jao cooks breakfast for a group of people that have been calling on Darin Mann's front lawn for the past week, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

The county’s health code forbids the establishment of camps on both public and private property in an effort to mitigate environmental and public health hazards, such as human waste. But because occupants at The Village Camp reportedly have access to a private bathroom in Mann’s home, Rupp said this encampment would likely fall under a separate housing code.

That regulation allows for tents, trailers and campers on private property with the permission of the property owner “for up to 10 consecutive days,” though the director of the Health Department does have the ability to grant exemptions.

Rupp said the housing regulation was built less for encampments and more for “private property owners who have had family stay and neighbors have complained the RV has been parked there for four months.”

Neither he nor the county’s environmental health director could remember a time when someone had invited an encampment onto their property, Rupp said.

“That’s not to say it hasn’t happened,” he said, but it’s “not common. Certainly not.”

Under county code, the health department has the ability to request that Mann essentially evict the campers from his property. If he declined to do so, he could ultimately face fines as well as civil or criminal penalties.

Mann said he doesn’t want to go to war with the health department and hopes he can work something out, stressing that this camp is temporary and that he’s doing everything possible to keep it sanitary.

If they come knocking, “I would try to talk to them and see if I could extend it for as long as possible until we could find shelter for these people,” Mann said. “Because the whole problem is them getting pushed over and over and over. I just want to give them some stability.”

While he’s yet to hear from the county health department, Mann said he did receive a code violation notice from Salt Lake City for the camping gear, storage bins, tents and debris on his lawn. The letter instructed him to clean up the property by Feb. 4 and that failure to do so would result in initiation of “appropriate legal action.”

He hopes to receive an extension from the city “until we can find a lasting solution for this crisis,” he said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darin Mann walks between the tents on his front lawn, where he has allowed a group of unsheltered people to camp this past week, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

‘Let’s be actionable’

While Mann feels the need to step up today to help people experiencing homelessness, he doesn’t think he’ll have tents in his yard a year from now — both because he doesn’t want to put too much strain on his neighborhood and because he hopes it won’t be necessary.

His main goal, he said, is to get the people on his property jobs and help them find shelter to move off the streets for good.

As part of that aim, Mann said he wants to see “a more productive dialogue” between the city and the various community activists who have recently taken on a bigger role in helping people who are unsheltered. While he thinks activists have a part to play, he argues Salt Lake City leaders haven’t done enough to stem the tide of homelessness in the community.

He wants them to explore more creative options, such as zoning changes to create a tiny home village or opening surplus property the city owns to provide shelter.

Why isn’t the city doing more, “when there’s dilapidated buildings we could convert?” he asked. “There’s a lot of different solutions that I don’t feel like are being explored.”

Sarah Kelly, who lives near Mann and has been in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years, said “nobody wants a tent city in their neighborhood.” But she said she supports The Village Camp because she agrees the government hasn’t done enough to help people experiencing homelessness.

“Their solution is bulldozers, which is not a long-term solution,” she said, referencing the county’s camp cleanups. “It’s not a compassionate solution. And I think you have Darin who’s saying, ‘I’m tired of waiting for the government to come up with something, so I’m going to do something.’ And he’ll say this isn’t a permanent solution. This isn’t a perfect solution. But it’s something better than what the government’s doing, which is nothing.”

In response to criticism from activists, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall countered in a recent interview that the city has stepped up more than any other government body to support people experiencing homelessness — from diversifying housing options through zoning changes to creating a street outreach partnership with Volunteers of America to hosting a winter overflow shelter this year and last.

“The city has done more than any other city in the state and we will continue to work,” she said. “But this is a statewide humanitarian crisis and we need the state and every other leader in Utah to take a seat at this table and work together. The idea that homelessness is the responsibility of Salt Lake City alone is not a new narrative. It’s just coming from a new voice right now.”

As the camp matures, Mann said he plans to continue advocating for action from the city and will fight for the residents to stay.

He also hopes to serve as an example to other community members who might consider providing space on their own property for unsheltered people in the Salt Lake Valley.

At his camp, “we’re trying to destigmatize the way we look at our homeless community,” he said. “Because if we destigmatize it, then it’s something that’s to be addressed rather than kind of be afraid of it. Let’s not be afraid of it anymore. Let’s be actionable.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tents line the front yard of Darin Mann's property, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.