A set of murals meant to draw attention to Salt Lake City’s homeless youth was defaced with another message, calling out the art piece’s so-called hypocrisy after county and city officials cleared out homeless camps at the mural site last year.
Volunteers painted the murals in 2014, decorating pillars holding up a highway offramp with cartoon figures emoting amid swooshes of red, purple, yellow and blue. They called it the 9 Pillars Mural Project.
“Each pillar shows a view into (a homeless youth’s) world,” the mural reads. “These messages convey their hopes, strength, challenges, and resilience.”
At least one activist recently targeted three of those pillars — many already tagged with various graffiti — to post their contrasting point of view.
First, they painted thick, black rings around the pillars. Then, they used a stencil and fluorescent orange spray paint to write: “Homeless were evicted from here.”
They also left stickers that read, “These murals have been improved,” alongside a QR code and a simple instruction to “find out more.”
The code takes you to an online document outlining the area’s recent past: About a year ago, the document states, the underpass “sheltered” about 20 tents and even more people experiencing homelessness. Last year, in March and August, county and city officials tore down and cleaned out the camp.
“While these murals were meant to bring awareness to the plight of homeless youth, they were instead used to justify the destruction and abatement of the shelters that ensured their survival,” the document reads. “We oppose this space being turned into a hypocritical spectacle, serving no purpose but to boost the property values of the surrounding businesses.”
Leadership at Volunteers of America Utah, the organization that coordinated the original mural project, had a “strong reaction” to the so-called improvements, chief development officer Dan Benshoff said.
Benshoff said he understands city and county officials’ obligation to business owners and residents, but he also takes the point of whoever defaced the murals.
”That’s kind of where all this comes back to, is like — we can provide services, we can provide homeless shelters, we can provide lots of things, which we do,” he said, “But unless we can get people into permanent housing, it’s just going to be this constant dance that happens. And it’s unfortunate.”
The group have no immediate plans to repaint the murals, Benshoff said. It also remains unclear who defaced them — or when it happened, although it was likely sometime around July 10, when someone made the first and last edit to the anonymous explanatory document.
Salt Lake City police aren’t investigating, according to a spokesperson, because no one has filed a police report.
‘Just don’t want to see them’
The murals are in a relatively obscure area, directly beneath the Interstate 15 exit ramp to 600 South, which drops into downtown Salt Lake City. About 50,000 cars travel above them every day, according to state transportation data.
Benshoff, who used to work in the area and sometimes parked beneath the offramp, assumes most motorists have no idea what’s below them — and no idea what’s happened there.
On a recent Friday, activist Ty Bellamy went out to the mural site. The “improvements” made her giddy. Her shoes crunched on the gravel as she walked from the paved, front parking area beneath the offramp toward the unpaved back lot, where the ramp above descends along the slope of the highway, then meets a concrete wall. This area, she said, was where people camped.
There were more than a dozen cars parked in this bumpy overflow area that day. Bellamy said she remembers fewer cars here a year ago, when she’d visit and hand out clothing, blankets and other hygiene items.
The people who stayed here tried to make sure they weren’t in the way, she said. Those who camped against the pillars left room for cars to pass and packed away their tents during the day.
“They weren’t bothering the patrons that were coming here to come to the different businesses,” Bellamy said.
The only reason officials forced them to leave, she said, was, “You literally just don’t want to see them.”
When Benshoff worked near the mural site, though, he remembered parking under the bridge and feeling the “weird tension” between groups of campers and other people using the lot.
Rainy days, he said, were the worst. Water drained into the back part of the lot, forcing campers further into the parking space just as more motorists preferred covered parking. Sometimes, people would get angry with each other.
Where can people go instead?
Bellamy said the message painted onto the murals — “Homeless were evicted from here” — should be displayed at every abatement site in the city, forcing the viewer to confront the idea that each place was once someone’s shelter.
“This should glow in the dark. This should be seen everywhere,” Bellamy said. “Everywhere you go, there should be a reminder that there’s people out here struggling and the government is doing nothing.”
That would be quite a bit of graffiti. The Salt Lake County Health Department conducted 279 homeless camp abatements last year and 286 in 2020, although sometimes, repeated cleanups happened in the same spot.
The 9 Pillars mural site was cleared at least twice last year. Officials first swept the camp March 25, 2021, after a nearby property owner or resident reported a problem, health department spokesperson Nicholas Rupp said.
Later, Salt Lake City officials asked the health department to check on the site, and an inspector in June 2021 determined it was “high-priority” for a cleanup. Crews went out for abatement Aug. 4
Rupp said an area may be designated “high-priority” if inspectors see undisposed human waste, or if it’s running into storm drains. The same is true if propane or gasoline — often used for cooking or warmth — soaks into soil or flows into drains.
Activists like Bellamy don’t understand why officials clear the camps, saying there’s few, if any, other housing options for people experiencing homelessness.
She said it’s possible to allow people to live in an area safely and pointed to her experience at Camp Last Hope, a large camp she helped organize and run that had rules for people staying there and volunteers who made sure it was kept clean. Officials tore down that camp, near 900 South and 500 West, in February 2021.
At a July 12 city council work session, Salt Lake City Director of Homeless Policy and Outreach, Andrew Johnston, again reported shelter capacity remained near 100% and declared the need for hundreds more beds.
In June, the Salt Lake City Council approved a budget that earmarked $20 million for affordable and deeply affordable housing. The legislature this year also approved $55 million for similar statewide projects. It will likely be years before Utahns see the results of those millions, officials have said.
This, as a recent Utah Office of Homeless Services’ report showed more Utahns experienced homelessness for the first time last year as housing prices continued to surge.
‘I feel like it’s not enough’
City and county workers continue to hold resource fairs and alternative courts and have designated cooling spaces and hydration stations to help people experiencing homelessness during summer heat waves, as well as plan to prepare for sheltering people experiencing homelessness in the frigid winter.
At the July 12 city council meeting, councilors representing Salt Lake City’s west side and downtown spoke out about homelessness-related issues in their districts and asked what more could be done to help.
“I am really concerned, and I want to be on public record, that we are creating a tragedy in the west-side neighborhoods as these temperatures increase, as resource scarcity becomes more of a thing because climate change,” said Victoria Petro-Eschler, representing District 1 on the city’s west side. “We are seeing that the west-side communities are increasingly facing these just basic humanitarian issues.”
Alejandro Puy, who represents the west-side’s District 2, said he’s heard from constituents who have been harassed and feel unsafe when walking the Jordan River Trail system in his district. In District 4, which covers downtown Salt Lake City, Ana Valdemoros said her constituents are concerned about crime near the women’s resource center.
“I relate to the frustration, and I’m trying to set the record straight about what the city is doing to address this issue, but at the same time I feel like it’s not enough,” Puy said. “I feel like all of us feel this way.”
He doesn’t know what the answer is, but the problem is getting “a little bit out of hand” and officials need to take bold action.
Johnston said there are several ongoing projects to provide homes or living spaces to help people “in the near future,” like a permanent shelter space for older people or those with medical conditions, as well as development for deeply affordable housing. Those likely won’t be available for another year.
The city just created a park ranger program, in part, to have officials present at parks to look out for illegal substance use and connect people experiencing homelessness with groups that provide resources.
Even when police or county health officials clear people from an area, SLCPD Captain Derek Dimond told city officials that officers know most campers don’t have other options and will likely set up somewhere else — and officers will likely be instructed to clear that space, too.
“I do appreciate the dire need out there,” Johnston said. “We are still working on it.”