‘We’re humans’: Officials eject unsheltered residents from one of Salt Lake City’s largest homeless camps

Officials said they carried out the cleanup because additional emergency shelter beds opened this week.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stacey Johnson rallies the campers to stand their ground s the police arrive at Fort Pioneer, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Fort Pioneer, an unsanctioned tent city on Salt Lake City’s west side, hummed with activity Thursday morning as residents waited for authorities to show up and demolish their makeshift community.

A woman washed her hair behind her tent, rinsing it in a cup of steaming water. Volunteers dished up oatmeal and stirred boiling pots of coffee. A dog named Ghost toyed with a golf ball.

And Stacey Johnson loudly vowed she’d go to jail rather than move out of this spot, beneath a highway overpass near 470 S. 700 West.

The 48-year-old with a blonde ponytail and determined expression has been a sort of “mayor” at the homeless encampment since setting up her tent here in the fall. Johnson, who’s suffering from kidney failure and says she doesn’t have long to live, saw this as one of her last achievements — that she helped carve out a place where people could exist in relative safety and harmony.

“This is my family,” said Johnson, who estimated that between 150 and 200 people lived at the camp. “Everybody in our family here is going to stand their ground because nobody knows what else to do or where else to go. Why wouldn’t we? We started this camp because there was nowhere to go, because we got tired of being pushed around.”

So residents without active warrants planned to resist even if it meant disobeying official orders, she said. They had bail money set aside in case they got arrested and zipped their pets inside their tents to protect them from conflicts with police.

Local activists arrived early and parked their cars around the cluster of tents, forming a kind of blockade so a front-loader or bulldozer couldn’t reach them.

When the county health department crew and police showed up, the advocates were at first defiant, heckling officials from across the caution tape that marked where the cleanup would begin.

But as the day wore on, there was an increasing sense of the cleanup’s inevitability, as officials kept inching the yellow tape forward toward the densest cluster of tents. A handful of activists stood in the way of a front-end loader for a couple minutes, trying to block its path, but police handcuffed one as the rest dispersed.

By late afternoon, almost nothing remained of Fort Pioneer.

Even Johnson eventually relented, saying her husband begged her not to get arrested. She and other residents folded their tarps and crammed what they could in carts and in the cars of the activists who were helping people move.

The front-loader scraped away whatever was left behind.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A front-end loader gathers up the remaining items left by the campers, during the abatement of Fort Pioneer, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Dale Keller, the county’s bureau manager of environmental health, said officials conduct camp cleanups in the interest of public health — to remove trash, feces, needles and other hazardous substances from an area.

They left Fort Pioneer alone for months because the region was suffering from a lack of shelter space. Salt Lake County’s three main resource centers don’t have enough beds to accommodate everyone who’s homeless, so providers have been opening temporary overflow sites during recent winters to get people out of the cold.

This year, labor shortages and political pushback delayed the opening of a winter shelter and also put a temporary stop to camp abatements, Keller said. But after 45 additional overflow beds became available this week, the health department moved forward with the cleanup, giving residents 48 hours’ notice that they needed to leave.

“During the winter, we’re crazy cautious,” Keller said. “We don’t want to take stuff away. We don’t want to make life more difficult for them.”

Rebel, a 63-year-old man who asked to be identified only by his street name, said he’s always stayed one step ahead of camp abatements and cleared his belongings away before officials get there. This time, he wanted to stay and fight.

“It’s been going on and on and on and on. It needs to stop,” he said of the camp cleanups. “Leave us alone. We can take care of ourselves.”

He said he’s been in trouble for most of his life, which has taken him from Virginia to New Orleans. He’s happy about what he’s done at Fort Pioneer, though.

Rebel was about to head back to Louisiana when Johnson asked him to help her at the site, and he spent the winter working on his living area and mentoring younger unsheltered people on how to camp.

“I’ve been in prison most of my life,” he said. “Now, this time, here, I’m doing something good, I think.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man who goes by the name of Rebel, keeps his eye on the Police and the heavy machinery that is coming his way, as he tries to decided whether to pack up his belongings, or try to stay, during the abatement of Fort Pioneer, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Rebel is proud of his space. He and Ghost, his dog, sleep in a spacious tent with a cookstove and cot. He’s stretched a tarp over some tables outside to create a workspace for repairing bicycles and preparing food. He wanted to give people somewhere to get warm and grab a doughnut, he said.

Several hours into the abatement, he’d folded up his tent and accepted that he’d have to leave, although he didn’t know where he would go.

Shay Chance and her boyfriend also packed up their campsite before the cleanup crew had time to reach them.

This is the first winter Chance has spent unsheltered, and her boyfriend has taught her how to stay warm in the bitter cold by fortifying their tent, layering sleeping bags and making sure to stock up on hand sanitizer and propane as heat sources.

Not having the right resources can be deadly. She said a woman two tents down from her froze to death one night after a storm hammered them with rain, sleet and snow.

During these frigid months, the stakes are too high to displace people and confiscate the belongings that enable their survival, she contends.

“I just don’t see the humanity in pushing people out of the only thing that they have,” Chance, 33, said.

On top of that, her tent at Fort Pioneer had become sort of a sanctuary. Chance said she and her boyfriend are both creative — she loves watercolor painting, and he likes customizing bicycles — and they’ve expressed that by decorating their tent with lights and rugs and draping a vibrant tapestry of ‘90s graffiti over their tarp.

“Anything that we can get that makes me feel like I’m an artist,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shay Chance hugs her boyfriend as they try to decide where to go next, during the abatement of Fort Pioneer, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Chance also appreciates the feeling of community and safety at the camp. Whenever someone new arrived, she said, Johnson would give them a rundown of the camp rules: No violence, no theft, no public drug use and no littering.

Advocates and volunteers brought a steady stream of donations and hot meals to the camp, and local groups set up a phone charging station and a trailer full of supplies. The camp had designated bathroom tents and a dumpster so they could keep the area clean.

Keller said the goal is to move these camp residents into emergency shelters and toward housing. But some campers have expressed doubt that there’s any room for them.

Salt Lake County’s three permanent resource centers are nearly filled to capacity most nights, and so is the temporary overflow shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, said Laurie Hopkins, executive director of Shelter the Homeless. A 35-bed temporary overnight site at the Weigand Homeless Resource Center closed earlier this week because of staffing shortages, KSL has reported.

However, officials are justifying the abatement because 45 additional beds opened up this week inside a west-side Ramada that’s being used for winter overflow.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers clear the area during the abatement of Fort Pioneer, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

After deciding not to resist authorities, Johnson said she and her husband planned to spend the night in a hotel room. But she said she’d be coming back to the Fort Pioneer site as soon as authorities clear out, and she expected other displaced campers to do the same.

“Animals in Utah don’t get treated as bad as we get treated,” she said, weeping outside her tent as the cleanup crews crept closer. “We’re humans.”

Editor’s note: Individuals can seek shelter by calling the homeless hotline, 801-990-9999, or by visiting the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall or Weigand Homeless Resource Center.