The following story was supported by funding from The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
On July 7, dozens of people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City frantically gathered their belongings from a camp along 150 North and 700 West. As many as 50 had called the camp, nestled between a freeway abutment and railroad tracks, home. On this morning they scrambled while, police, two backhoes and seven industrial-sized dump trucks waited nearby to begin tearing down the camp.
Stacey Johnson, a usually proud and optimistic camp “mom” for the group, was beyond frustrated as she was in the midst of her tenth forced move since February.
“I’m angry and I’m tired, and I just can’t take any more of this,” Johnson said.
Government agencies are likely to continue camp cleanups, which don’t treat homelessness and simply push the unhoused to different corners of the city and county.
Records gathered by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project show that local and state agencies collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to clear away homeless encampments in Salt Lake County, a process that advocates call cruel, but officials say is an unfortunate necessity.
In Salt Lake City in 2021, nearly 50 of these cleanups took place, pushing unsheltered homeless people out of the camps where they’d temporarily taken refuge and trashing whatever belongings they left behind.
The sweeps — often called “abatements” — happen under bridges, in the foothills and along the Jordan River. And they’re a source of tension between officials and homeless people, who say they are tired of having to uproot and of losing their possessions to the cleanup crews. Increasingly in recent years, the operations are also drawing protests and spawning clashes between demonstrators and authorities.
Officials say they wish they didn’t have to carry out abatements but that the cleanups are a matter of public health and safety. They would be putting the homeless population and the broader community at risk, they say, if they were to ignore the garbage and human waste that often accumulates in the camps.
“Nobody thinks abatements are a solution to homelessness,” said Nicholas Rupp, spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department. “They’re a temporary mitigation to prevent environmental degradation from becoming insurmountable.”
But some advocates contend the abatements are inhumane, driving people from place to place while doing nothing to help them find permanent shelter. In addition, they argue, the cleanups squander precious public dollars that could go toward homeless housing and services, initiatives they say could actually make a lasting difference, especially given the capacity shortage in the region’s three homeless resource centers.
Salt Lake City alone paid contractors more than $1 million last year to clean campsites, including helping carry out sweeps. And the costs of abatements reach far beyond this contract, when considering the on-site police presence, the health department staff time and help from other agencies.
“It is a waste of money,” said Ty Bellamy, a homeless advocate and founder of the Black Lives for Humanity Movement. “Anytime you ask for them to allocate those funds towards something to help these guys, there’s a million and one excuses. But, they’ll go throw money out there like crazy to get rid of them.”
Salt Lake City isn’t the only entity paying for cleanups. It’s hard to know for sure how much Salt Lake County’s abatements cost, given the number of public agencies involved in the sweeps and because some say they don’t keep track of it.
The Salt Lake County Health Department reports spending about $253,000 in staff time last year working on encampment-related cases. The 279 cases that led to an abatement account for about $128,000 of that total, according to the agency.
Records from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) show it cost the agency roughly $85,000 last year to help conduct camp cleanups, almost all of that in Salt Lake County.
Typically, transportation officials only get involved when an encampment is under a bridge, near an off-ramp or on other UDOT-owned properties, according to the agency. However, because it has large equipment, UDOT occasionally pitches in for large abatements in other areas.
Then there’s the roughly $1 million the city paid cleanup teams with contractor Advantage Services, a company that helps pick up, does power washing and removes biowaste at active or abandoned encampments. Some of that money is spent on abatements.
That amount encompasses abatement support but also includes general trash collection and cleanup at camps, said Michelle Hoon, project and policy manager with Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team. She said the city doesn’t record the abatement costs separately, so officials don’t know exactly how much they’re spending on the sweeps under the Advantage Services contract.
The law enforcement presence at many abatements represents another significant expense, but a public records request to the Salt Lake City Police Department for that amount wasn’t answered in time for publication.
However, Hoon’s team reported that in 2021, Salt Lake City police worked more than 9,275 overtime hours for abatement security and prevention — essentially just to keep the peace, she said. With the lowest-paid SLCPD officers earning $26.93 per hour last year, the most conservative estimate puts the cost of that time at about $250,000 for 2021.
Salt Lake City also budgets about $17,000 per year for landfill tipping costs, to dump items gathered during the abatements, Hoon said.
Many advocates view with dismay both the money spent on the cleanups and the waste generated by them. In larger sweeps, front-loaders and cleanup crews scoop up entire tent cities and the belongings that enable people to survive on the streets.
There’s a constant churn of donated possessions going from volunteers and nonprofits to homeless campers to the landfill, said advocate Wendy Garvin. She estimated that her group distributes thousands of sleeping bags each year because people keep losing them to abatements and need a replacement.
The cleanup crews also haul off blankets, mats, grills, bicycles, clothes, important documents and sentimental belongings.
“We’ve seen people whose encampments have been bulldozed while they’re not there, and they’ve lost pets,” Garvin, president of the nonprofit Unsheltered Utah, said. “We had a guy with a cat up in a tent, and they wouldn’t let him go past a barrier to go get the last of his stuff out of there. And we never found the cat again.”
Beyond the loss of physical possessions, abatements also shatter any tenuous sense of stability that camp residents have felt, advocates say. Bellamy described the cleanups as adding yet another layer of trauma to the experience of homelessness.
“They don’t know where to go. And they’re so tired,” she said. “They are so exhausted from having to pack up and move, pack up and move, pack up and move.”
‘We would be negligent’
Salt Lake County health officials say the sweeps are a matter of public safety.
Hoon said city officials track citizen complaints about encampments and send outreach teams from the Volunteers of America to several camps a week to engage residents and try to connect them with housing opportunities. In deciding whether to disperse a camp, officials from the city, health department and other agencies consider its size, the condition of the site and potential health or safety concerns.
Sprawling encampments that are messy or have a negative impact on the neighborhood or environment can take priority for abatement, said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s homeless policy and outreach director.
In one recent case, Johnston said, officials were worried that campers in a foothills location could start a wildfire. And the camps on the banks of the Jordan River can contaminate the waterway with human waste, legal and illegal drugs, metals, cooking fuel, tires and other garbage, Rupp said.
The same ecological considerations apply even in less sensitive environments, Rupp added — to say nothing of concerns about the health of homeless people who are most directly exposed to these unsanitary conditions.
“We would be negligent in our public health duties if we allowed people to live among others’ waste, and debris that is harmful not only to the environment, but their personal health,” he said.
In the lead-up to an abatement, officials send social workers and outreach workers to camps to offer residents referrals to resource providers. Rupp said the goal is to make sure people have multiple chances to connect to resources before their camps are disbanded.
However, advocates say abatements actually impede outreach efforts, since people tend to scatter in the aftermath of the cleanups and it becomes harder for volunteers and case managers to find them.
And Bellamy said there’s a cheaper and more humane approach altogether: Give unsheltered people the tools they need to keep their surroundings clean.
“If I don’t give you sharps containers to put your used syringes in, if I don’t give you trash cans to put your garbage in, guess what? Inevitably, it’s gonna get messy,” she said. “They’re not dirty. You’re being dirty by not giving them what they need.”
A different way?
Garvin said it costs her group about $200 a week to put out a dumpster and about $150 a day for a port-a-potty.
The city does place dumpsters, trash cans and port-a-potties at some camps, Johnston said.
“We don’t have a lot of those resources, but we try and target them to different places where we know they’re needed, as much as we can,” he said.
Property owners have also tried putting portable toilets in encampments in the past, Rupp said, but found that people vandalize the facilities within days or even hours. Port-a-potties have ended up in such bad shape that the toilet companies would refuse to service them, he continued.
Rupp said his understanding is that companies are now unwilling to provide portable toilets in encampments because they’re worried about the potential damage to their property.
Bellamy, though, argued that tent communities can stay orderly under the right circumstances.
Camp Last Hope, a tent community that Bellamy helped establish in December 2020, had organization and rules to prohibit violence and disorder. She and others raised money to put a port-a-potty at the site, and in an environment of greater safety and calm, she said people were able to start focusing on their sobriety.
The camp ended up dispersing as the health department warned residents of a planned camp sweep. Still, Bellamy said it proved something.
“Let us bring resources like we did at Camp Last Hope. Let me show you what we can do,” she said. “I literally have given them the blueprint.”
Most agree that continuing to push people from site to site isn’t a long-term solution for illegal camping — and while a fix seems attainable, given Salt Lake City’s relatively small unsheltered population, Johnston said it’s also not yet within reach.
Some have argued in favor of opening a sanctioned campground, where people are legally permitted to pitch their tents and can access case management and other services. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, however, has shown little appetite for the idea.
To Garvin, sanctioned camping would serve as a stopgap measure until officials open enough emergency shelter space, but she agreed with Mendenhall that it isn’t a good long-term goal.
The region, she said, needs at least one additional shelter for couples and also more room for pet owners or people who are caring for another adult with disabilities.
But there are potential downsides to sanctioned camping, Johnston said.
Providing staff and services at sanctioned camps is costly, with the city of Denver poised to spend $3.9 million this year on managed sites, according to the Denver Gazette. Johnston said the costs of operating a campground in Salt Lake City would probably be comparable to the expense of running one of the Salt Lake Valley’s resource centers.
It’s also important to recognize that not everyone would be open to staying on a sanctioned campground, he continued. These sites are controlled spaces — surrounded by fencing, monitored by security and subject to an array of health and safety rules — which would deter people who want more autonomy and flexibility.
In other communities, he said, sanctioned sites are envisioned as a brief waypoint before getting people stabilized and into housing. They’re not a cure for the conflicts and tensions around illegal camping, though, he contended.
“There is a place for it,” Johnston said. “But the expectation that if you just sanction them, that it decreases camping everywhere, it’s not borne out.”
He and Garvin both believe that it would be better to convert motels or hotels into segregated shelters, which would allow for separate living quarters and afford people greater privacy. It would only take a handful of these facilities to bring inside everyone who’s currently sleeping on Salt Lake City’s streets, Johnston said.
Political and community dynamics and lack of funding, he said, are standing in the way of accomplishing this. Still he believes Salt Lake City could bring the homeless indoors. While the Legislature slashed funding for “deeply affordable” housing, Johnston said the state still has committed $55 million to the effort with roughly half of that earmarked for Salt Lake County with Salt Lake City setting aside $20 million as well.
Converting old motels is still a tricky endeavor as it requires significant investments and access to federal tax incentives which aren’t easy to come by. Still, Johnston pointed out that the motels that can be converted are already in bad shape and attracting criminal activity with vacant and distressed units. By converting them into housing for the homeless they not only offer a lifeline to the unsheltered but improve quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Stable housing is stable for everyone, even for local neighborhoods,” Johnston said.