‘You clear them out’: How mayoral candidate Rocky Anderson wants to deal with — and help — unhoused Utahns who resist shelters

He has criticized Mayor Erin Mendenhall for what he sees as a failure to help unsheltered Utahns.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former mayor and current mayoral candidate Rocky Anderson talks to a woman experiencing homelessness near the railroad tracks on 800 East, Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.

Salt Lake City’s homelessness crisis is at the forefront in this year’s mayoral race.

Former Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is seeking a third term after more than a decade away from public office, immediately made homelessness a central issue in his campaign, criticizing Mayor Erin Mendenhall and her administration for what he sees as a failure to help unhoused Utahns.

We sat down with Anderson to learn more about how would help the unsheltered if voters send him back to City Hall.

[Read a Q&A with Mayor Erin Mendenhall about the homelessness issue.]

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What role should Salt Lake City play in addressing homelessness?

As a city where homelessness is a greater problem than any other place in the state, and as the capital city of our state, Salt Lake City, and particularly the mayor, have an enormous responsibility to convene all the parties who may be helpful, whose input should be considered, and to make absolutely certain there is a coherent plan, well-understood and supported by the public, and that that plan is successfully implemented.

It is the responsibility of the mayor. I sometimes wonder why anybody would run for mayor if they are facing a major homelessness problem and then always make reference to it as “the state’s homelessness problem,” and act as if she’s only one among many people, where responsibility is then dissipated and nothing gets done.

It’s in her city where we had hundreds of people out in the freezing cold last winter, several of them dying, several of them losing fingers and toes to frostbite, and every single one of them living in absolute misery with unbelievable trauma. That was happening in the city where she’s the mayor, and the mayor is the fundamentally responsible person to make certain that these problems are solved.

That doesn’t mean that the city is the only one that puts up resources. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to other people, including experts elsewhere.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Mayor Rocky Anderson led a demonstration in City Hall outside the office of Mayor Jackie Biskupski, demanding she produce a plan for emergency overflow shelter space for Utahns experiencing homelessness, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016.

What is the city doing right?

Virtually nothing. You look at what has happened in Salt Lake City, and it seems that everything that’s happened has been politically driven, and sometimes to benefit developers and gentrify areas of our city while resorting to these scattered [homeless shelter] sites that are far away from other homeless services and have undermined surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s hard to find anything right — after The Road Home shelter downtown, which was in close proximity to other homeless services, had 1,100 beds, and was summarily shut down rather than improved, rather than expanded, rather than fixing the problems. It was shut down, and then millions of dollars of tax money and philanthropy money going into three scattered sites with about 400 fewer beds than were available at The Road Home shelter.

The promises made to neighbors around the scattered sites have been broken. People always denigrate others for being NIMBYs [not in my backyard] but after the experience in these neighborhoods, it would be hard to blame anybody for being a NIMBY, for not wanting to have happen in their neighborhoods what’s happened in the neighborhoods of those resource centers.

We need, in every instance, outreach workers who establish a one-on-one relationship, and consistent relationship, and finding out how the homeless people got to where they are, what their immediate needs are, and then, with a case manager, putting together a plan with ultimate goals and what it’s going to take to transition that person into having a home and having a better life.

What do you see as the main points that need to be improved with the city’s homelessness response, and what would you do — and which policies would you implement — if you were elected mayor to achieve that?

Over all of this, it’s important that somebody be responsible — and it’s the mayor.

It’s the mayors who have to step forward, the mayors have to convene the parties, the mayors have to find the resources, not just municipal resources, but working with others, and here it would include churches, the philanthropy community, the corporate community, and the Legislature, and certainly the county.

I would push for us all to set much more aggressive goals and really work toward a goal of essentially ending homelessness in Utah.

We need far more supportive, permanent housing. We were on the track to doing that. Then it all seemed to come to a grinding halt.

It’s got to be a holistic effort. One of the things we need to do is persuade the Legislature. By the way, I have a very good relationship with most legislators, including a lot of Republicans. We need to work with the Legislature, reform our landlord-tenant, and especially our eviction, laws, which are abhorrent.

We need to get away from this neoliberal, market-based approach [to affordable housing]. It’s really corporate socialism, where we keep dumping millions of dollars into the pockets of developers in trade for a few units of affordable housing.

The solution in most of the rest of the world is nonmarket housing. The city ought to be using its resources, its borrowing power to build mixed-income housing where people of all different income levels can live together, and then they pay according to their ability to pay. It’s absolutely time we do this.

We need to prevent homelessness for those who are tenuous, those who are vulnerable, those who are barely hanging on.

Everybody needs to understand, if we want to really battle homelessness, and we want to give working people a decent shot, then we’ve got to raise the minimum wage.

We need a system where we’re keeping track of those who are at risk of homelessness, and that includes people getting out of jail, people getting out of prison, people being discharged from hospitals or psychiatric institutions. There needs to be determination, when we release this person in the community, are they going to be an addition to our homeless population? And if they are, we need to jump on it, right then and there, and equip that person with resources, with a plan.

The city’s got to be far friendlier and less bureaucratic for those who seek to provide housing opportunities for people who are homeless.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson interviews Tony Lambert on 500 West, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

You’ve got to have the data on every person — how they got there, what their needs are, and what it’s going to take to get them into housing.

You could take 1,200 people off the streets in a year if we could pull together the funding and buy 10 hotels and replicate what Switchpoint has been doing.

What we need is somebody that’s passionate and aggressive and not only sets ambitious goals, but knows how to put together a plan and then implement the plan with full transparency and full accountability to the public.

First, immediately, and I would do this within two months or sooner after I become mayor, I would put together sanctioned camps — and there would have to be a separate one for families — and include in those camps optional shelter that is low- or no-barrier, where people can come and at least get out of the elements.

At those sanctioned camps — which would include parking for trailers, campers, trucks, wherever people are living — I would make certain that everybody has access to toilets, showers, laundry facilities, a community kitchen and food, and we could participate with churches and volunteers in the community, and homelessness advocates.

We put an end [to unsanctioned camping], but we have a humane, decent alternative.

Last winter, including to the present, Mayor [Erin] Mendenhall has not provided those alternatives. But without providing either shelter or an alternative place for people to go, like a sanctioned encampment, she keeps sending the police down with Streets Division people who ought to be repairing our streets, and running people off, not providing them any information about where they can go to exist, and then, in many instances, destroying their property, including their tents, their survival gear, their clothing, their medications.

How many camps would you want to set up and where would you want them to go?

It should be in a location where it’s not going to undermine neighborhoods, and it’s not going to undermine businesses, as is happening now. I’m not going to commit to a location. I think that’s inappropriate, but there are plenty of places where you could situate a sanctioned camp and provide those amenities.

Whose responsibility should it be to pay for the sanctioned camps and who should run them?

Those are the kinds of things that, as you pull partners together and you convene all the parties, you get it figured out. But you all commit to the idea, to the concept.

State homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser has said his interest is not in a sanctioned camp but in a low-barrier shelter, where there are more permanent structures that kind of look like sheds. What do you think of that idea, and do you think that would work in the same way that a sanctioned camp would?

I guess it depends on proximity to other services. A sanctioned camp ought to be an immediate solution to the entire problem with encampments and lack of the kind of amenities that I’ve talked about. And then, using outreach workers and case managers systematically, moving people out of the sanctioned camps into supportive housing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson announces his candidacy for mayor on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.

There are some people who are just resistant to shelters for any number of reasons. How do you get them into a shelter option, be it a homeless resource center or a sanctioned camp?

I’ve seen it work. The courtyard at Haven for Hope in San Antonio. They had encampments all over San Antonio. Now you’ve got a no-barrier courtyard, which is segregated from the rest of Haven for Hope. You can be uninterested at the moment in transitioning to improve in your life, but at least it’s a place where they serve three meals a day. There are bathrooms, there are showers, they’re treated decently.

You’ve criticized Mayor Mendenhall for the camp cleanups, also known as abatements. How would your approach to those unsanctioned camps be different from hers?

It’s more than a cleanup. It’s pushing people out of where they’re just trying to exist.

I would provide alternatives. There would be adequate shelter. There would be sanctioned camps. There would be places for them to go so their feet don’t have to be amputated because of frostbite.

This is the lowest this city has ever reached in terms of fundamental morality or humanity when we give people no options to get out of the freezing cold.

It would be night and day in terms of both the treatment of the homeless community and then also making certain that when members of the homeless community cause property damage, or engage in other kinds of crimes, that we actually do something to solve the problem rather than have police tell these business owners — and I’ve heard it a number of times — that the mayor has told us just to tell them to move on. That’s not solving any problems.

Some people say, “Well, you know, if you arrest people, that’s been really mean to homeless people.” No. What you need to do is, if they’re violating the law, stop them by arresting them, and then divert them. Don’t put them in jail. This isn’t about punishment or retribution.

According to restorative justice principles, you divert them from jail. You put them into a mental health facility or a drug addiction treatment center, or somewhere low security, not an expensive jail that are incredibly expensive to operate, and heinously oppressive and oftentimes dangerous, but, depending on the circumstances, put them in a holding center, and then get the courts to stop releasing them as soon as they’re booked and putting them out so they can continue doing what they’ve been doing to victimize residents and businesses.

When you talk about restorative justice, that means restoring everybody, including victims. If somebody has thrown a rock through somebody’s window at their business, then there needs to be restitution. They need to go to work. They need to understand that there are consequences, and they need to be accountable for their actions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rocky Anderson talks to a woman experiencing homelessness near the railroad tracks on 800 East on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

If someone in an unsanctioned camp refuses to go to the sanctioned camp or refuses to go to a treatment center, refuses to take any of the options that are available to them for help, what should happen to that person?

You clear them out. Our public parks are there for public enjoyment, not for somebody to monopolize and scare everybody else away. Not to have an open-air drug market, not to be pitching tents.

We’ve got to have equal compassion for everybody concerned, and that includes the residents of our city. That includes families and children. And it includes businesses and also members of the homeless community.

I’ve had only one person tell me that he would not prefer a sanctioned camp over camping around the city and having the police raids and all the insecurity.

How do you help people if they are taken into custody?

First of all, you determine what it is that brought them to that point. What are the underlying problems?

When I was mayor, we put in place the nation’s most comprehensive restorative justice programs. We had a homelessness court. Our police should be establishing relationships — personal, friendly relationships — with everybody in our community because they’re supposed to serve and protect every one of us. And instead, right now, they’re pitted against [one another].

There needs to be a major change in leadership at Salt Lake City Police Department and with that will come a change in culture, and I think it’ll be something that would be great for everybody, including our police officers, who then can truly do their job of serving and protecting everybody in this community and enforcing the law when it’s broken.

What are some cities that are doing things right that are addressing homelessness, responding to homelessness particularly well and which of their policies would you want to emulate?

Nashville has done great work. San Antonio is doing great work. Denver had great success with their sanctioned camps.

Even though it’s an overwhelming problem, there are some great programs being developed in Los Angeles and New York with safe havens for people to go.

What do you think of The Other Side Village project and how would that fit into your vision?

It’s a great solution — like The Other Side Academy is a great solution for turning around the lives of a certain subset of people. It’s not an answer for the entire chronically homeless population. I’m so irritated when the mayor and her administration keep calling them “tiny homes,” because The Other Side Village has made it clear they don’t use that term. Because there have been a lot of different tiny homes projects that have failed. This is more about community.

Mayor Mendenhall has said numerous times over the past several months that there’s been an improvement in the city’s relationships with the state and Salt Lake County. What is the importance of those relationships? And what do you think of that as a talking point of hers?

It signifies a person who never stands up, never speaks truth to those in power, never rocks the boat. Just going along to get along doesn’t get us anywhere. The results are clear. Just look around. The homelessness problem just has been handled abysmally.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think is important to touch on before we go?

Leadership makes all the difference.

There are those who have a record of a lot of accomplishments, and you can see that goals have been set and the hard work has been done, and the goals have been achieved. And there are those, like our present mayor, who talks a lot, makes a lot of excuses and points the finger, says it’s somebody else’s job, and ducks responsibility. I got into this race because I want to embrace the responsibility, and I want to do right by this entire community.

I don’t want to live in a city where homeless people are treated so inhumanely, but I also don’t want to live in a city where we can’t go to the parks and feel safe, and where there are encampments, where there are no open toilets. Having a toilet is a basic, internationally recognized human right that’s been completely disregarded by this mayor. I go down to Pioneer Park to see if they’ve locked the bathrooms. No, they haven’t locked them. They demolished them.

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