33,000 SLC hotel nights were booked during All-Star Weekend, with 1,160 available beds at homeless shelters

Activists and some unsheltered people held signs and tents, in the hours before the NBA All-Star Game.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bear Eagle who has experienced homelessness and expressed no interest in the basketball game, joins other homeless advocates outside of Vivint Smart Home Arena just hours before tip-off for the All-Star game on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

In front of the signage wrapping Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena to tout Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, Bear Eagle held up a sign with a different message.

Eagle, who said he has experienced homelessness during four years of his life, held up a neon yellow sign with the words “5 humans froze to death in 5 days in Salt Lake City,” referring to people who died on the city’s streets during a cold snap in late December.

Below that message, in smaller letters, was written, “Do something, Mendenhall!,” a plea to Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City’s mayor.

When asked about the game to be played Sunday inside Vivint Arena, Eagle said he would be happy for whoever wins, but that the event is something for “rich people.”

Eagle was among 60 people — activists and those who are unsheltered — who marched Sunday from Pioneer Park to the outskirts of Vivint Arena, in what was called a “March of the Homeless.” The group stopped along South Temple near 300 West, across the street from The Viv’s main entrance, which boasted heavy security that included local police and Utah Highway Patrol troopers.

The marchers lifted red, blue and yellow signs above their heads, with such messages as “Mendenhall serves police, not the people,” “Unsheltered Utahns have rights,” “Housing is a human right” and “Nothing about us without us.” They also carried three gray-colored tents, with eviction signs attached.

Among those attending were local activists Denise Weaver, Carl Moore and Wendy Garvin. Rocky Anderson — the former Salt Lake City mayor, who has declared he is running to reclaim his old job, and could face Mendenhall if she runs for re-election — also joined the march.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People protest in support of those experiencing homelessness as they march to Vivint Smart Home Arena just hours before tip-off of the All-Star game on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

As the march approached the arena, the juxtaposition — of people standing up for those with little or no means outside a multi-million-dollar event that drew an estimated 125,000 basketball fans to the city — was striking.

Weaver, a community organizer with The Party for Socialism and Liberation, criticized Mendenhall for how she has handled the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis.

“The city spent almost $40,000 to open warming shelters during the NBA All-Star Weekend, and they say that this was an effort to keep people safe,” Weaver said. “But they weren’t trying to keep people safe when the temperatures were in the teens and people were dying on our streets.”

Andrew Wittenberg, the director of communications for Mendenhall’s office said in an email statement Tuesday that the warming center project originated from Salt Lake County, and was paid for by the state of Utah.

“The goal of the broader partnership between the City, County and State is not to sweep the unsheltered out of the City, or out of sight during the All-Star Weekend (or during any other singular event), but remains focused on increasing housing and shelter options so that everyone who wants a warm place to stay can find one,” Wittenberg said in the statement. “To date, the City has invested $30 million in this fiscal year toward that goal, and we expect more of the same in the coming months.”

The march was designed to call attention to the city’s homelessness issues during the All-Star event, Weaver said. “Mendenhall wants this to be the attention that Salt Lake City gets, being the All-Star Game,” she said. “But she doesn’t want to address what’s happening every single day in our communities.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police form a line as people protest in support of those experiencing homelessness during a rally outside of Vivint Smart Home Arena just hours before tip-off of the All-Star game on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

The city’s plan for the unsheltered during Sunday’s All-Star Game included dinner, and a chance to watch the game at certain locations, removed from the Vivint Arena area. Earlier last week, Mendenhall said police would not conduct additional enforcement against unsheltered people.

Activists criticized the watch party plan as a way to keep the unsheltered out of sight and mind during a weekend that brought in thousands to Utah’s capital city.

Volunteers of America Utah, the nonprofit that organized the watch party, would not allow a Tribune reporter to enter the resource center to talk to unsheltered people about their interest in the game. Kathy Bray, president and CEO of VOA Utah, said the centers “reflect the general population,” in that some care about basketball and some don’t.

“Our main focus really is it’s very cold outside and we need to do our very best as an organization to get as many people who are experiencing homelessness inside where it’s warm,” Bray said. “If there happens to be a watch party ... that they’re interested in, good. If it gives them something to distract them from their troubles, for some time, it’s good.”

Bray shared a flyer with The Tribune, showing that there were 1,160 available beds across six shelters and resource centers throughout All-Star Weekend, from Thursday through Sunday, along with Sunday’s watch parties.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People protest in support of those experiencing homelessness, using tents to showcase numerous breakdowns of encampments during a rally outside of Vivint Smart Home Arena just hours before tip-off off the All-Star game on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Weaver said that “the thing that unsheltered folks want the most, and the demand that they raise, is that they would like to be housed. They don’t want watch parties. They don’t want empty platitudes.”

Running a shelter for one year, Weaver said, costs $3 million. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in a news conference Saturday, estimated the game’s economic impact to Salt Lake City would be $280 million — a record for the league’s marquee event. Silver said the city’s hotels also recorded 33,000 nights booked during the weekend, also a record.

The NBA also organized several charity events and service projects through the weekend, some of them through NBA Cares, the league’s “global social responsibility program. One such project, held Friday at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center, had players and other people filling backpacks for people experiencing homeleness, Bray said. Those backpacks, she said, went to the youth and women’s resource centers VOA operates.

Outside the arena Sunday, the protesters planned to stay until 5:30 p.m., about a half-hour before tip-off. They shared their experiences and handed out flyers to people passing by on their way to the game. Some of those visitors stopped, and some laughed, but many listened.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People protest in support of those experiencing homelessness as they march to Vivint Smart Home Arena just hours before tip-off of the All-Star game on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Michael Molliver — who is originally from Pennsylvania, and said he has been transient in Utah since he arrived in June — said he has been treated the same way this weekend as he is usually: cruelly.

“[People] are conditioned to look at us like we’re less than humans,” he said, adding that he had no interest in the All-Star Game. “We’re not just struggling in life. We need encouragement, love and understanding, and to be heard and to be known.”

Mishalene, who has been unsheltered for nine years, said what’s going on with her community is not humane. She said she doesn’t know what a watch party is.

“Everyone should keep open minds and open hearts about the homeless because not everybody’s bad,” she said. “Not everybody’s out there doing drugs and not everybody’s out there to commit crimes. ... [The] things that [people] do make it even harder for people to get out of the situation that they’re in.”