Rio Grande confrontations show tensions rising among Salt Lake City’s homeless

People experiencing homelessness say they aren’t clear where they can camp and worry about winter survival as crews continually throw away tents and other gear.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Gomez sits amongst her belongings after being forced to pack up her things on Rio Grande Street, on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

Early Monday, activist Ty Bellamy woke people sleeping in tents or beneath tarps in downtown Salt Lake City with a warning: Move your things soon, or they’re going to end up in a dumpster.

“They don’t want to warn you,” she said as cleanup crews began to sweep the area. “They just want to come and throw it away.”

Bellamy, who works to get supplies to people experiencing homelessness, said she got a phone call about the planned cleanup for this spot, near Rio Grande Street and 200 South, and rushed to get the word out. She’s tired of repeating the cycle of replenishing tarps, blankets and other cold-weather gear each time crews conduct such sweeps.

So are the people who live through it. And, seemingly, the people contracted to do the cleaning.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Bellamy with Black Lives For Humanity helps people on Rio Grande Street organize their belongings before cleanup crews discard them, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

As the dozens of people living on the block scrambled Monday to drag their belongings someplace safe, a city rapid intervention team member got into a confrontation with a woman.

Bellamy and Mickie Hunter, vice chairperson for the Downtown Community Council, were both at the cleanup and said the 49-year-old city worker struck the 23-year-old woman with a rake. The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to Salt Lake City police, the Mayor’s Office, the city’s director of homeless policy and outreach, and the leader of the city’s homeless response and engagement team for comment.

In a statement attributed to the city, officials said evidence they reviewed showed the 23-year-old instead hit the worker with a tent pole.

Bellamy was livestreaming during the altercation but her video doesn’t show what happened. It did pick up audio — two distinct thunks and screaming, followed by remarks from onlookers, the rapid intervention team member and police. It also shows the 23-year-old brandishing a thin pole as the two women separated.

“She (the city worker) committed battery on her first,” a man standing nearby, wearing a gray hat and holding a disposable cup, explained to the officers who’d surrounded the woman experiencing homelessness. Others nearby shouted similar sentiments.

Bellamy tried to quell onlookers’ anger, urging them to get their things and keep moving as officers handcuffed the woman and led her away.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police handcuff a woman after a confrontation with a Salt Lake City rapid intervention team worker. Onlookers said the worker hit the 23-year-old woman experiencing homelessness, but city officials in a statement said evidence they reviewed showed the 23-year-old instead hit the worker with a tent pole. The 23-year-old was arrested for outstanding warrants on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

Then Bellamy turned to the worker. “You guys have got to watch how you come out here talking to people, though. You guys can’t pop off to them. They’re under a lot of stress right now.”

The worker from the confrontation responded: “They can’t be here. Period,” later adding that the people in the area had been notified of the planned cleanup. Bellamy disagreed, arguing the notification comes when trucks and crews roll in. There were no posted notices nearby, she pointed out.

“Our signs are a courtesy. We don’t have to,” the worker replied.

“It’s this exact attitude that just got this happening,” Bellamy said. “All I’m asking is for you to be a little bit more empathetic.”

Who is conducting the sweeps?

Officials are reviewing the altercation, according to the city statement. The 23-year-old was booked into jail for prior warrants.

It was one of at least two altercations officers have investigated on the same street within just four days. On Jan. 6, a man who’d been playing catch with a football launched it at someone’s face who was on the sidewalk, causing them to bleed, a Tribune reporter witnessed. Bellamy said tensions are building as people feel increasingly hopeless and unsure of where to go as policymakers and officials try to find a solution to the ongoing homelessness crisis.

“You’ve got people that are struggling with mental health, struggling with addiction,” she said. “You’ve got people that are miserable, and so at some point, they start to take it out on the people around them.”

In the statement attributed to the city, officials said the rapid intervention team has cleaned the Rio Grande area 28 times since Oct. 3. Contractors with Advantage Services, a company that hires people with “mental health and other life challenges,” sweep the block almost daily. The rapid intervention team operates “under the guidance that people will be given time to retrieve belongings they may want or need to keep from an active camp site,” the statement said.

It noted the city provides nearby storage for people experiencing homelessness, and said there are a variety of overflow shelter options available for youths, couples and people with pets.

“Sufficient alternatives to storing belongings in the public right of way are available for people who need help,” the statement read.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Overfeld drags his belongings down the street after being moved from the Rio Grande area during a cleanup on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

“SLCPD officers and RIT employees generally don’t provide specific instructions on where to go; individuals must comply with applicable laws no matter where they go,” the statement said. “Officers and other staff may direct people to shelters or other resource/service providers.”

‘How do you expect us to survive?’

Since the former Road Home shelter in this area was demolished in 2020, crews have begun erecting a seven-story apartment building and retail space that will replace it. But people experiencing homelessness still gather on the block where other services remain available, like the Weigand Homeless Resource Center.

The planned apartment building will have more than 200 units. The Road Home Shelter provided beds for 1,100 people — 400 more than the 700 beds provided in the three shelters that replaced it: two in Salt Lake City, and the other in South Salt Lake. Each winter, officials open emergency overflow shelters to make up that difference.

Last month, at least five people experiencing homelessness died amid unusually snowy weather and frigid temperatures, prompting Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood to announce they’d open up emergency shelter beds.

The rake confrontation Monday happened moments after Bellamy sought clarification from officers about where people were supposed to go. It’s a similar conversation Bellamy had with officers on this stretch of street on Jan. 6, the day after private crews cleared the same area.

“Depending on what officer you talk to,” Bellamy said, “there’s a different set of rules.”

Some allow tents to stay up. Some say they must be taken down. Some are lenient when campers light fires. Others aren’t.

“That’s discretion, yeah. I mean, what it comes down to, it’s still against the law, whether you choose to enforce it,” Officer Brian Eruaga said to Bellamy.

Ashley Gomez said on Jan. 6 that crews took most of her belongings, like her tent, in the sweep the day prior. Gomez’s dog, who she said helps detect oncoming seizures, was also taken away after some kind of confrontation with a worker, she said.

She was wrapped in a forest green jacket and on her feet, wearing only a pair of black slides. She struggled to talk through tears, standing and shaking in the cold and light rain.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Gomez drags away her friend's belongings after crews asked people experiencing homelessness to pack up and move from Rio Grande Street during a cleanup on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

“They don’t even give us warnings no more or anything. That’s what I was yelling at them yesterday. I said, ‘This was bulls---. We just had Christmas. We can’t even put it in storage or anything.”

All she had left was a small pile of tarps, blankets, some clothing and two stuffed Care Bears, still attached to their cardboard packaging, which sat in front of a metal fence surrounding the Weigand Homeless Resource Center. Her tent was gone.

Ben Serralles has lost everything in similar sweeps, he said on Jan. 6. There have been times when, in weather colder than 30 degrees, police have instructed him and others to take down their tents, he said.

“That’s unjustifiable,” he said. “How do you expect us to survive with just a Sterno (heater) or just a blanket, if we’re not under cover?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Serralles talks about life on the streets on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, amid what activists called unexpected cleanups and conflicting messages from officials about camping.

City officials said in a statement that officers do have discretion when enforcing laws, saying they “are entrusted to make the appropriate decision to handle each situation fairly while understanding and recognizing the needs of the person experiencing homelessness.”

They will generally consider storage and overflow shelter availability, according to the statement.

“Our department continues to prioritize compassion and education when working with community members experiencing homelessness,” the statement said.

Cleanup crews have previously posted warnings of impending abatements, Serralles and Bellamy said. More recently, they said officials haven’t issued warnings. They just arrive, tell people to clear the area and throw away what’s left behind.

Sometimes these people were at lunch, or work, or medical appointments and come back to find their things gone, Bellamy said. Sometimes stuff is thrown away because a person is moving too slowly, Serralles argued.

Activists like Bellamy and Hunter theorized the recent cleanups had something to do with the Outdoor Retailer convention, at the time scheduled to begin a few blocks away the next day. The city didn’t address the event in its statement, but said the Rio Grande area has been a recurring priority for the rapid intervention team and Advantage Services contractors.

Bellamy said Salt Lake City police officers told her they were moving people west of downtown because of a “big event.” Hunter said this happens often.

“When there’s a convention, or the Mormon conference, or something like that, they do not want people to see them,” Hunter argued, “so they’re like, ‘Get out of here.’”

Michelle Hoon, the city’s policy and program manager, said in an email that the cleanup on Monday was already on the crew’s schedule, and that they clean the same block regularly. She said signs have been posted telling people not to camp, but sometimes they’re taken down or vandalized.

The Salt Lake County Health Department has jurisdiction over the cleanup crews, Johnston said. Spokesperson Nicholas Rupp said the health department wasn’t at Monday’s cleanup and wasn’t involved. The rapid intervention team, he said, was created to do more regular monitoring of areas so camps don’t grow so large that they need a health department response.

For those larger abatements, Rupp said the health department always posts notices and typically only does those cleanups and evacuations after receiving complaints or noticing potential public health risks.

“Salt Lake City has chosen to be more aggressive with some of these areas, which we’re totally supportive of, but we’re not directly involved,” Rupp said.

‘It’s a problem, but help us’

American Civil Liberties Union of Utah spokesperson Aaron Welcher said the group has been working with Nomad Alliance, a nonprofit that works with people experiencing homelessness, to help the population advocate for themselves when they have interactions with police.

The group is also looking at the possible civil rights implications of the available shelter space and resources, he said.

“If they have nowhere else to sleep, or stay or be safe, if there are not proper resources, and then being arrested or cited (for camping),” that may be a violation of their 8th Amendment rights against excessive fines, bail or cruel and unusual punishment, Welcher said.

Billy Palmer, a community organizer with the ACLU of Utah, says his organization is keeping up with complaints about potential constitutional violations related to cleanups and law enforcement, but declined to discuss specific allegations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man sits slumped over as others drag their belongings away after being told to move from the the Rio Grande area on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

He pointed to the ACLU’s recent report on law enforcement after Operation Rio Grande, a multi-million dollar effort to eradicate lawlessness and address homelessness in the capital city’s downtown.

After that operation, which the ACLU has argued was misguided and harmful, because so many low-level offenders were cited and arrested, the group worried state policymakers would follow the same “playbook of a law enforcement-first approach to address, displace, unsheltered communities.”

The report showed spikes in SLCPD officers issuing anti-camping citations in summer 2021, after Mendenhall announced that July that targeted anti-camping enforcement would resume, followed by the end of the federal eviction moratorium in August.

“Importantly, we want to emphasize that we cannot arrest our way out of homelessness and that there are severe civil liberty implications when criminalizing unsheltered communities becomes the default playbook,” the report states.

As crews struggle to find solutions, Bellamy said she’s seeing more and more new faces when she does outreach work. Serralles has seen it, too.

State department of workforce services data show that the number of people enrolled in emergency shelter or transitional housing projects increased to 10,477 between fiscal 2020 and 2021, after years of decline.

The same is true for the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time — growing from 6,768 to 7,712 in that same time period — while the number of people who successfully exited homelessness after transitional housing, rapid re-housing or receiving services at an emergency shelter has decreased to 25%, down from just over 30%. Numbers for people contacted via street outreach, however, have improved from 2% to nearly 10%.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness point-in-time count shows Salt Lake County’s homeless population was 2,095 last year — lower than in 2021, but still higher than the three years before that.

During the Jan. 10 Salt Lake City Council work session, Johnston reported that between Jan. 2-6, overflow “flex” beds at homeless shelters were at 81.3% occupancy; the Millcreek overflow space was at 82.2% capacity; and the St. Vincent de Paul overflow in Rio Grande was at 98.5% capacity.

Monday night, Salt Lake City’s homeless resource center dashboard showed beds at its three shelters were nearly full.

Earlier that same day, Jose Diaz arrived back on the Rio Grande block to find crews throwing away items and people scrambling to get away. He was wearing an orange reflective jacket and holding a paper coffee cup after leaving a job site.

“Why do they treat us like this?” he asked. “It’s not right.”

He worried about what might come next, as the homeless population becomes increasingly desperate and tries to draw attention to their struggles.

“We need shelters in here. We need help. Some of us mentally, we’re not fine … Drugs in here, OK. It’s a problem. It’s a problem,” he said, “but help us.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jose Diaz gestures as he talks about leaving work early to try to save all of his belongings in the Rio Grande area after he got the call from a friend that crews were cleaning the area on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.