Key group calls for a new approach with homeless Utahns: Get help or go to jail

Pioneer Park Coalition says its plan is ultimately more compassionate, notes that current measures are failing.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Pioneer Park Coalition and the community hold a news conference on a new plan to address homelessness in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

Accept services, head to a shelter, stay at a sanctioned camp, or go to jail.

Those are the options that would be available to unhoused Utahns under the Pioneer Park Coalition’s new plan to fight homelessness.

“Salt Lake City’s approach to homelessness and crime is failing,” business owner and coalition member Nicole Thomas said. “Change must happen now.”

The coalition, a consortium of businesses and advocates, released its vision for change at a news conference Thursday morning, revealing a three-point plan to combat the crisis. It is an approach that members say is ultimately a more compassionate way to reduce crime, transform lives and clear the streets.

The coalition’s policy wish list calls for:

• Providing more housing with supportive services.

• Enforcing laws more strictly.

• Emphasizing accountability.

“Simply put, the time for empty promises and short-term victories is over,” said Thomas, who moved her business to Bluffdale after encountering issues with downtown Salt Lake City’s unsheltered population. “The clock has run out. We don’t want Salt Lake to become like Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.”

Upping the threat of jail time

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Sen. Scott Howell makes remarks at a news conference to address homelessness in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

Coalition members want to create more structured housing that focuses on services, additional immediate treatment options for people experiencing mental illness and substance use disorders, and establish a sanctioned campground with showers, toilets, a safe place to store belongings and an opportunity to start on a path to self-sufficiency.

At the news conference, Scott Howell, a former state senator and current member of the coalition’s executive board, acknowledged unhoused residents cannot be forced into mental health services or an approved camp.

“But what we can do,” he said, “is enforce no-camping (laws) and say, ‘Your alternative is to (go) to jail or go to the sanctioned camp.”

Howell said allowing those experiencing homelessness to sleep on the street is not a compassionate approach and that he would rather see them in a place where they can get necessary care such as medical attention and mental health care.

“The answer to that right now is go to jail,” he said. “Now, someone out there is going to say, ‘Oh, Scott Howell just wants to take all the homeless, put them in jail and that’s the solution.’

“No, no, no, no. It is much better that we take care of our homeless by putting them in a safe, secure environment where they can get attention and have three meals a day and be able to know that they are going to wake up in the morning without someone hanging over them or someone robbing them or someone sexually abusing them.”

That’s a problematic approach, according to Jason Groth, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

Groth called enforcement of camping bans an ineffective way to address homelessness, saying it wastes time and money.

“It doesn’t do anything to get people out of that situation,” he said, “but it actually further entrenches them in that situation.”

Jeralyn Delamare, who has been experiencing homelessness since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, said she tucks in anywhere she can to stay safe outside.

She bristled at the widespread threat of jail time but said she would support having a place where she could set up a tent, clean up and get on her feet.

“We want a private place to shower,” she said. “We want to be clean. We want to get back to work. It’s not happening. I’m not capable of doing that where I am right now.”

Salt Lake City does not have a legal homeless camp, although two west-side council members are vocal supporters of forming one. Mayor Erin Mendenhall has expressed skepticism about whether a camp would be effective.

Additional enforcement, more accountability

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Pioneer Park Coalition and the community hold a news conference to address homelessness in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

The coalition’s plan also urges enforcing laws against drug use and low-level crimes like vandalism and minor acts of violence, and for police and prosecutors to target repeat criminals more aggressively.

By responding to low-level offenses, coalition Executive Director Jim Behunin said, police could prevent more serious crimes.

“We need to enforce the law not because we want to be mean or we want to punish people,” he said. “It’s because we believe that our homeless friends will not progress until they recognize the consequences of their behavior.”

The coalition’s plan also encourages greater accountability for results in the homeless services system.

Behunin said service providers must know how many people have been successful after going through a program, prosecutors and judges should know how many times individuals have been through the system, and shelter operators must keep their promises to minimize the effects of their facilities on surrounding areas.

And unhoused individuals, Behunin said, should also take responsibility for themselves.

“We can offer all kinds of supportive services, but if they don’t take the opportunities, there should be consequences,” he said. “At the same time, we need to provide them with love and support and encouragement.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People walk through Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

Law enforcement, elected officials respond

Salt Lake City police do enforce the city’s camping ban, according to a department spokesperson, but prioritize education and connecting unsheltered residents with resources.

As of Oct. 2, year-to-date overall crime across the city was down 9.4%. The department said reducing crime further is a task it takes seriously as it continues to recruit officers.

“The more officers we have on our streets,” the statement said, “the more work they can put into community outreach and long-term, sustainable crime reduction.”

For his part, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a statement that his office has and will continue to enforce laws where appropriate.

“However, we cannot prosecute people that are incompetent or lack the capacity to stand trial,” he said. “A significant portion of our homeless population is struggling with mental illness, which may or may not result in criminal activity.”

In a joint statement, Mendenhall and the City Council said they welcome the coalition’s work on what is a statewide issue.

“Salt Lake City shares with the coalition the goals of increased supportive housing, expansions in mental and behavioral health services, and accountability for this issue at all levels of government,” the statement reads. “We appreciate the coalition highlighting these critical shortages in the system and hope it encourages greater understanding of this complex issue. We certainly look forward to further conversations.”

Behunin said his group will present the plan to the Utah Homelessness Council, Salt Lake City Council, and Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.