Here’s how SLC is trying to prevent large homeless camps

Rapid intervention team tries to send people into shelters and services early on — but sometimes those options are full as well.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A couple living on the bank of the Jordan River in Cottonwood Park in August. Salt Lake City deploys a rapid intervention team to try to get people into shelters and services.

Salt Lake City may have found a way to prevent homeless camps from getting out of control.

In June, the city launched a rapid intervention team, an effort to connect unhoused Utahns with resources before small encampments swell and require large cleanup efforts.

The team, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, fits into an initiative under her administration to diversify how the city responds to public health and safety needs.

“It’s not just a police officer or only a firefighter,” she said, “who needs to be able to engage with people.”

The program represents a more targeted response to homelessness than the city traditionally has used. It’s one that officials hope will build rapport with unsheltered residents as the city works to get people off the streets.

Now, instead of outreach workers being spread across the entire city, they focus on offering resources to a handful of small camps every week. If the team members aren’t making any progress, officials will schedule a site cleanup.

If they do make inroads, they’ll continue to work to connect residents with services.

City touts traction in new program

Program manager Michelle Hoon said the effort is still in its infancy and that the city is still learning lessons from the new approach.

“We’re starting to see greater success,” Hoon said, “and we’re starting to understand the real needs of people who are living in camps.”

Unsheltered residents who are contacted by the rapid intervention team have a number of services they can access, but placement depends on availability.

In addition to the usual suite of homeless services like substance use treatment and shelters, the city has 10 motel rooms it can offer as a steppingstone to get people out of tents and into other options.

Most people, Hoon said, are receptive to longer-term services, like housing or detox programs.

Where they’ve been less successful, she said, is transitioning people to shorter-term options like beds at homeless resource centers.

“If it’s something where they’re not 100% sure how long they’re going to be able to stay,” Hoon said, “then it’s just more challenging to get them to actually accept that resource.”

Hoon said focusing on smaller camps is more successful because it is easier to find space for a handful of people when vacancies arise with service providers.

From the time the program launched to the end of August, the rapid intervention team successfully helped 10 people get off the streets. Six went to temporary or permanent housing, two entered shelters, and two went to substance use treatment programs.

Hoon said the team has been understaffed and that she expects engagement levels to increase as more personnel come on board.

The team is made up of five city employees, including four who are dedicated to cleaning up camps, Hoon said. The city contracts with Volunteers of America for four additional outreach workers.

A lack of resources

The city insists this engagement shift has given officials an opportunity to provide more focused support to those experiencing homelessness, with more meaningful interactions and more referrals to services.

Not everyone is sold on its effectiveness.

“The only issue with that approach is that there’s no room in shelters,” said Shawn Clay, director of the Salt Lake City Mission. “There’s no room in a mental health facility.”

He questioned how the city would be able to build a rapport with people who constantly face the threat of being moved around.

When there’s no available housing and a scarcity of shelter beds, University of Utah assistant professor Jeff Rose said, there isn’t much the rapid intervention team can provide.

However, he said, the team still has value.

“They have a purpose. … I’m not incredibly cynical about this,” he said. “That purpose is, honestly, to let people who are involved in encampments know that somebody cares.”

City officials acknowledge there aren’t enough places for people to go. There aren’t enough shelter beds. There aren’t enough emergency services. There aren’t enough housing options.

Andrew Johnston, the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach, said the relationships the intervention team is building now will pay off when it comes time to help people get into the winter overflow shelter and, ultimately, more permanent housing as it comes on line.

This month, the Utah Homelessness Council voted to allocate nearly $55 million to affordable and deeply affordable projects across the state.

Salt Lake City also announced an investment in housing this month with a $6 million grant to fund projects that would help keep a roof over residents’ heads when spring arrives and the winter overflow beds close.

Housing with services, Johnston said, is the ultimate solution. Without it, he said, the interventions are not as effective because unsheltered residents have nowhere to go.

“We can ask people not to camp, but if they don’t have a legitimate place to go to,” Johnston said, “it’s just shuffling around, whether it’s in a motel room or not, on a temporary basis.”

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