‘No more avoiding it’: As calls for sanctioned homeless camps in Salt Lake City grow, Mendenhall resists

Could legal homeless encampments clean up the Jordan River? West-side council members think so.

Empty, beaten-down campsites line a stretch of the Jordan River that slices through Cottonwood Park.

The tents will be back soon enough but, for now, only garbage remains.

A pile of bike parts, a small propane tank and discarded Big Gulp cups lie abandoned in the dirt. Just a few feet from a tattered copy of the Book of Mormon, an empty syringe sits exposed to anyone who strays from the paved path that runs along the river.

The whiplash from sprawling encampments to cleared tent sites and back is a familiar cycle for west-siders, who are feeling the strain of what one city leader has described as a “humanitarian crisis.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Used needles, trash, clothing and books can be found along the banks of the Jordan River near Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall acknowledges the need to do more, but is resisting a proposal for legally sanctioned homeless encampments that has been championed by council members who represent the neighborhoods on the front lines.

Ask these residents what they think about Salt Lake City’s response to the proliferation of encampments along the river and across the west side, and they’ll likely tell you officials aren’t doing enough.

“And we aren’t doing enough,” said first-year council member Alejandro Puy, whose district includes Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark.

Puy is a vocal supporter of creating legal campgrounds as a way to better connect those experiencing homelessness to help, and to give west-siders improved access to amenities like public parks by giving the unhoused another place to stay.

He said he wants the city to explore funding, zoning and permitting for sanctioned camping.

“When someone tells you that this (legal camping) is a no in our city,” he said, “what they’re saying is that the current system, the current way of dealing with this problem is OK.”

A successful model in Denver

Puy wants to explore following in the footsteps of a sanctioned camping program run by the Colorado Village Collaborative in Denver. The nonprofit operates three sites, offering tents to 160 people in a referral-based program.

The campgrounds provide food, restrooms, laundry rooms, showers and a way to get connected with medical, employment and housing services.

Denver’s sanctioned camps, called the Safe Outdoor Space program, began in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving those who sleep on the streets other places to stay during a global health crisis.

Cuica Montoya, the program’s director, said the first site resulted in a “great, resounding success.” Despite having what she described as only reluctant support from city leaders, Denver decided to expand the program.

Those who stay in the camps don’t have a curfew, but they are required to follow basic rules like not bringing in weapons, not committing violence, keeping pets leashed and agreeing to work on finding housing. Alcohol and drugs are prohibited in the camps.

Montoya said the sites serve people who may have trouble finding shelter elsewhere, such as couples, pet owners and those with mobility challenges.

The program expects to help 100 people find housing this year, she said.

“We really just want to provide a dignified space for people to exist,” Montoya added, “without having to experience the traumatic displacement that they do here in Denver.”

A place in the shadows

Salt Lake City residents experiencing homelessness are drawn to the Jordan River largely because it offers cover from the outside world. It’s not so much about hiding as it is about staying out of the way, 47-year-old Brad Gordon said.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “It keeps me out of trouble. Keeps them from looking at us.”

As a convicted felon, Gordon doesn’t like being in shelters, but he’s embraced the idea of a sanctioned campground.

“If it meant we got to put our stuff someplace and it’s safe there and it’s not going to get thrown away,” Gordon said, “I’d follow their rules all day long.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I know everybody and it's peaceful to an extent," said Brad Gordon, left, under one of the shelters at Cottonwood Park near the Jordan River with Jordan Hawks, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. Gordon is living mostly out of a backpack after officials cleared out a camp where several people were living.

A study released this year by the University of Utah found that clearing camps elsewhere in the city left unsheltered residents with no other choice but to seek refuge along the Jordan River Trail. Not only does the river offer privacy, according to the study, it also offers easy access to amenities like food, clean drinking water, restrooms, trash cans and convenience stores.

Unsheltered residents polled for the report said beds at homeless resource centers are limited and people often find it hard to comply with regulations.

But uncertainty driven by increased cleanups has fueled stress and anxiety, they told researchers.

At least twice a month, Gordon said, he and others who live in Cottonwood Park lose their possessions when camps are swept away.

If he’s nearby when removal teams arrive, he’ll try to save his things from heading to a landfill. But if he’s out working temporary jobs to earn enough to eat and do laundry, he faces the threat of coming back to nothing.

“If we’re not there,” he said, “we lose everything we own.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jayden Watson and his girlfriend Maddison Hackford live unsheltered on the bank of the Jordan River in Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Patience wearing thin

The conditions along the river are testing the patience of west-siders.

Fairpark resident Kara Munsey said the city needs to commit more resources and use harm-reduction strategies, which decrease the harms of drug use rather than just ignoring or condemning it, to help with impacts like abandoned syringes.

“I think twice about which way I’m going to go,” Munsey said, “because I don’t want to have an encounter where I could be exposed to a dirty needle.”

Poplar Grove resident Jason Seaton, meanwhile, said he wants the city to clear out the underbrush along the river to make it harder for unsheltered people to hide in the overgrown vegetation.

Seaton said the state and other cities need to step up to help keep public spaces from being overrun by encampments and drug use.

He said he doesn’t support sanctioned camping because he worries the only place it will happen is on his side of town.

“People have jumped on my case about this and called me the NIMBY,” he said. “Let me tell you something about that. That’s right. I don’t want any more of this in my backyard, and the reason I don’t is because it’s all in my backyard.”

He said the west side, cut off from the rest of the city by freeways and railroad tracks, ends up bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“I have yet to hear of a big homeless camp being removed from Sugar House or from Harvard-Yale neighborhood or Federal Heights,” he said. “They’re not there.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Used needles and trash can be found along the banks of the Jordan River near Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Søren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, said he’s long backed the idea of regulating camping. It just becomes a question, he said, of where to put it.

Simonsen, who also serves on the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said the closure of overflow shelters in April led to an influx of people camping along the river because there was nowhere else to go.

And when camps are cleared, he said, unsheltered residents simply move on to other places along the trail, or head into other urban areas.

The former Salt Lake City Council member said while he supports a legal camp, there’s a bigger picture that needs to be addressed.

“Until we can address the long-term permanent supportive housing and the emergency shelter needs beyond the capacity that we have now,” he said, “we will probably be living with camping around the Jordan River for the foreseeable future.”

Mayor remains skeptical

Mendenhall said she was curious about legally sanctioned camps, but doesn’t think the approach could be successful. She said a regulated encampment in Austin, Texas, found no decrease in the number of on-street camps.

“It seemed to attract a newer population,” Mendenhall said, “either to fill the space of those who went into the sanctioned camp, or to come directly to the sanctioned camp.”

Mendenhall said it shouldn’t fall on one city to manage regulated camps alone.

Salt Lake City, she said, doesn’t get enough support from the state to tackle what she considers a statewide issue, and it doesn’t have the level of partnerships in place that would be required to run something like a sanctioned camp.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man carrying jugs of water walks past trash strewn along the bank of the Jordan River near Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

But the city isn’t standing by idly as camping proliferates, she insists. Her administration is working with Salt Lake County and state partners on solutions like using pods — not tents — to shelter people in the frigid winter months and the sweltering summer.

The mayor said the city also has solutions in place to ease the effects of the crisis, like outreach programs, a new park ranger program, funding for motel rooms, legal assistance and a new rapid response team to prevent small camps from expanding.

West-side council members sound the alarm

Puy, the District 2 council member, said efforts like the rapid response team are great, but they’ve only been able to help a handful of people. And when encampments swell to an unmanageable size, the Salt Lake County Health Department has to step in to clear the sites.

“It costs a lot of money,” Puy said, “and also costs a lot of trauma for those in the camp and the neighbors when the camps get that big.”

That’s why Puy said he supports creating a way to regulate camping for those experiencing homelessness.

It may not be the only available solution, he said, but it could help.

“We need to do something,” he said, “and I don’t think anything should be off the table at this point.”

Puy said he would want the camps to rotate throughout different areas of the city and to be located on state- or city-owned land.

First-year District 1 council member Victoria Petro-Eschler called the camps along the Jordan River a “humanitarian crisis,” and said pressure and anxiety are building as housed residents exhaust their compassion and people experiencing homelessness continue to face struggles daily.

The unpredictability of unregulated camping, she said, creates safety concerns for west-siders.

Legally sanctioned camps aren’t just enticing, the council member contends. There’s an urgent need for them.

“We’re at a point where we absolutely have to do that,” she said. “There’s no more avoiding it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) People have created an encampment in a large shelter in Cottonwood Park, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.