The row of motor homes is parked on a strip of packed gravel that’s little more than a driveway, wedged between the train tracks and a fenced property for Honey Bucket portable toilet suppliers.
Here on Salt Lake City’s outskirts, some people have been living for more than a year in this community of patched-up RVs and the whirring generators that keep them warm. They believed that here, in an isolated area, city officials would allow them to remain undisturbed.
But on Tuesday, police officers showed up and notified them that they had to move — even from here. They said the residents had a day to pack.
On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, many of them scrambled to gather their belongings, filling cars and trailers with furniture in a race to beat the camp abatement. One man said he worked to cram possessions into his truck all through the frigid night until his hands were chapped and bleeding.
Renae Johnson, who’s been living in a red Jeep at the camp for the last year, said the city has warned residents of a potential cleanup before and that each time she sees the police drive up, she “gets a sick feeling, panicked.”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” Johnson, 62, said. “Because I don’t have anywhere to go. It’s not knowing.”
But the next day, officials abruptly called off the abatement because of the overnight dusting of snow, according to a county health department spokesman. Residents at the RV camp said they were not informed of the change in plans.
And Johnson, who spends each night in her Jeep’s back seat, as her partner tries to sleep in the front, had no idea what she’d do if she were forced to leave.
“Where can I go?” Johnson said Tuesday. “You can’t just park anywhere.”
Though officials often do warn residents of camp cleanups so they can move beforehand or seek services, they don’t have to offer that heads-up, said police spokesperson Brent Weisberg. There’s also no requirement to give notice that a cleanup is canceled, he wrote in an email.
Weisberg said the health department will eventually carry out an abatement at that site “as the camp is a violation of the law.”
By midday Wednesday, all but four of the motor homes had left the property, with residents still fearing that police and a cleanup crew could arrive at any minute.
Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, said people who end up in RV encampments are there out of desperation and that displacing them does nothing to solve the underlying problems that led them here. A better approach is to work with the residents to figure out what’s blocking them from stable housing and then trying to remove those barriers, he said.
“If you don’t meet those people’s housing needs, then that encampment is just going to spring up somewhere else,” he said. “Because the need for a safe place to shelter oneself, store one’s belongings and sleep at night does not disappear. It’s a basic human need. You can’t stop that need.”
Residents at the site, nicknamed the “Honey Bucket camp” by some of them, have already been forced away from other areas, especially in more heavily trafficked parts of town.
After being kicked out of another location, Brock Winder moved to the site about a week ago hoping that he’d finally found a spot to park his truck and motor home for a while.
Upon hearing that an abatement team would arrive Wednesday morning, he spent the night stuffing as much as he could into his truck. His motor home isn’t running, so he concluded he’d have to abandon it and let officials tow it away.
“It’s really hard to recover from that,” Winder, 32, said of losing his RV.
The motor home has acted as a safe place for his belongings and somewhere he can cook his own meals. On top of that, having a reliable shelter has enabled him to get a job at a temp agency and do handyman work on the side.
“It means everything,” he said.
Winder said he’d drive away from that site without knowing where he was headed.
Michelle Peterson, who lives in an aging Winnebago that she bought about a year ago, noted that campgrounds in the area refuse to accept older RVs, meaning that a KOA isn’t an option for most people at the Honey Bucket encampment.
Living here in an RV is the hardest thing she’s ever done, she said. And to hear she has to pick up and move is “devastating.”
The city allows people to park their RVs or cars along the street but prohibits them from staying in any spot for longer than 48 hours. Following that rule can be challenging for those whose motor homes break down and can’t afford to fix them before the city takes action.
Many people have had their RVs ticketed or even impounded, with some losing most of their possessions in the process.
City officials say they’ve seen a big increase recently in resident complaints about these vehicles, especially when clusters of them are parked along neighborhood streets.
But Johnson she thought she might be allowed to remain at this remote and industrial site, as long as residents stayed quiet and kept it relatively picked up.
Johnson says she’s tried her best to haul away trash, even if it wasn’t hers, and ruined the back of her Jeep in the process. Her car has started having mechanical problems now, though, and she couldn’t keep up with clearing the area anymore.
The property started to fill with scrap metal, cardboard boxes, spent propane tanks and other trash.
And even though Johnson understands why the city scheduled a cleanup, she wishes officials would give them a dumpster and other resources to keep the area clean rather than displacing residents.
“I don’t blame them, because of the mess,” she said of officials. “But instead of making it harder on us, why not make it easier?”
Johnson spent all of Wednesday clearing away garbage and organizing abandoned belongings that littered the site, even sweeping the dirt around the remaining motor homes to neaten the area. She hopes that if she makes it presentable enough, she might be allowed to stay.