‘Those cleanups, they’re not pretty’: Erin Mendenhall talks homeless camps, affordable housing in extended reelection bid interview

The first-term mayor has called this the biggest topic she and her administration address.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at the groundbreaking for The Other Side Village on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Mendenhall called the village of tiny homes one of her most significant achievements in her battle against homelessness.

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Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s first term at City Hall’s helm has been marked by companion crises: homelessness and a soaring cost of living.

The first-term mayor, who has called homelessness the biggest topic she and her administration work on, has labored to reframe it as a statewide problem, not one that Utah’s capital needs to tackle in a silo.

Mendenhall’s most prominent challenger to her reelection bid, former Mayor Rocky Anderson, has criticized the mayor for what he considers her failure to adequately address the problem.

We talked to Mendenhall about what she sees as her successes — and what she would have done differently — with fighting homelessness in Utah.

[Read a Q&A with Rocky Anderson about homelessness.]

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What role should Salt Lake City play when it comes to addressing homelessness?

We’ve worked hard over the last three years to not only get very active and clear in our role and authority but to call others to their part of this work. And at the local level, in the state of Utah, especially where cities do not receive any mental or behavioral health funding, they don’t have the authority to oversee shelters or administer those services, our role has been financially focused around capital to make services possible, operational funding for on-street outreach and cleanup of public spaces, and, mostly, affordable housing — deeply affordable housing creation.

We also have a role, though, in addressing the zoning, the land use that affects the ability for shelters to operate. We just expanded that from three zones to most of the city for future shelters.

Also with zoning, that makes not only affordable housing possible, but more likely in more in the city.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other dignitaries at the groundbreaking for The Other Side Village on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

What are some of the most significant steps that you’ve taken since becoming mayor to address homelessness?

The first one, I would say, is the largest increase in investment in the creation of affordable units in the city’s history. We’re up to over $50 million already invested since 2020. It has netted over 4,000 units, with more in the pipeline — seven more projects this calendar year in the pipeline.

In addition, the creation of a tiny home community in the city. Both from a zoning perspective, which we had to create, it didn’t exist before, and obviously through the partnership with our land and The Other Side Village.

The biggest change has been that the city no longer feels that we have to stand alone or that we are standing alone on needs surrounding what is a statewide homelessness crisis.

It was a two-part strategy, and the first 18 months were more of a defensive position, calling to the public eye and to the ear of other levels of government in the state — meaning other cities, counties and the state officials — that this is not a capital city issue alone.

[While] speaking plainly in the public realm about the statewide nature of this, we were also setting the grounds for a productive relationship with these other levels of government that we needed, and have responsibilities they needed to bring to the table.

We shifted from a defensive position to playing offensively with these partners. We see the results of that in 2022 legislation that gave us our first line of guaranteed mitigation support for communities in Salt Lake who host resource centers, and we see it in the state’s commitment to $27.5 million in the ‘22 [legislative] session to Salt Lake County for deeply affordable, permanent supportive and transitional housing. In this last session, it was $50 million.

I think most exciting for me is that this partnership is a very real and living relationship. It’s not that we come together during the legislative session and go back to our corners.

You’ve talked a lot about the improvement in the relationships with partners at the state level and at the county level. You touched on some of the progress we’ve seen at the state level, but what are some examples of progress that you’ve seen with the county partnerships?

I’ll start with the mental health part. There were about two dozen of us who went to Miami in November. We came back, by the time we landed in Salt Lake City, this was no longer Salt Lake City’s ambition. This was our collective ambition. And [county] Mayor [Jenny] Wilson said, “We will staff this effort.”

[The county] is staffing this effort of working with our partners to see where the gaps are between our silos that Miami has addressed, and they have a template of ways through programming and funding to bridge those gaps so that we can do this process. They offered this. They are staffing this; they’re funding this.

You see it also with Mayor Wilson’s funding request that her County Council just approved recently for $25 million for affordable housing. It’s a major step forward for affordable housing creation that exists throughout the county.

They brought their willingness to support our community commitment program that we created in fall of 2020, where we asked service provider organizations to go out with us and do service fairs, where they set up where encampments are and try to resolve people’s needs and connect people with the services they need.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall discusses the plans for winter overflow shelters and transitional housing at a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

When you look at the totality of Salt Lake City’s homelessness response, what is it that the city does really well?

It’s unfortunate that we had to, but when I took office in January of ‘20, there was no plan for a winter overflow shelter in those months after The Road Home was closed. The new resource centers were barely opened, and it was painfully obvious that there needed to be a winter overflow shelter.

We’ve been good at working creatively and in a way that builds partnerships through struggle, meaning the struggle of that winter with people having no winter overflow option, the struggle of increasing numbers of Americans losing their housing, losing their jobs through a pandemic, having to work with partners at the county and the state to stand up motels that became operational shelters, or find five different locations for winter shelter with our partners last year because there was not one big enough.

We’re good at evolving and adapting, and if something isn’t working, then we quickly move to the next best opportunity. And we’re willing with funding as well. We’ve committed for sure the largest amount in the state, but we’ve done it in a way that has brought more dollars from other levels of government to partner with us and take it further.

What could the city do better?

The city could work to — which we are working to do — bring these partners with us to Washington, D.C., with our voices. The net we are building for the federal systems that dissolved in the early ‘80s and were never replaced by that same federal government should be supported in a better way by the federal government.

If I could go back and do some things over — certainly we’ve learned from our experiences — I would have bought up motels at the beginning of the pandemic the way that some parts of the country have done.

It’s a very complicated challenge, and all of our actions are absolutely rooted in wanting to help our residents and keep our city safe. So it’s difficult to say that we absolutely shouldn’t have tried anything that we tried. I think it’s a good thing that the city is trying so many different efforts, funding so many things, and most of all, leveraging our dollars with more county and state support than we’ve ever had before.

You and members of your administration have faced criticism for the camp cleanups. Why participate in those cleanups at all?

Let me start with the abatement cleanups, the ones that we partner with the [Salt Lake County] Health Department on, because those have been going on longer than my administration has been around. The county, if they do an abatement in any other part of the county, in another city, they could ask that city for the same support that they ask us for.

We participate in those because it’s inhumane for a city to allow [unhoused residents to live in] public spaces that were never fit for human habitation. It’s inhumane for them, especially. And it is unsafe from a public health standpoint, for those kind of dense encampments to persist, for the broader public.

Those cleanups, they’re not pretty. Tractors come in to remove things that are left behind. They do that because the public health workers have been stuck by needles so many times that they can’t send people with gloves and boots in to do these cleanups anymore. It’s not safe for those public employees, either. It’s not pretty to see a tractor scooping the belongings that are left behind.

It’s also understandable that, even though notice is given at these camps, that some people living in the camps are not there when the notice is given. They may be at their job. They may be out finding food. Even if they know that the cleanup is coming, it’s understandable to me that most people don’t immediately pack up and say, “Well, we might as well leave now.”

The result of these cleanups is not something that is comfortable for, I hope, anyone in the public to watch or be a part of, but the reality is that allowing people to use our front yards, our parks, the stoop of your front door or a business for relieving themselves, starting a fire to stay warm, camping out and whatever other behavioral activities may happen there, is not a better option.

A part that is ironic to me, especially coming from some of our Salt Lakers who have a lot of frustration with the state Legislature for their actions or inactions on subjects that we care very much about, that there is, from some of the same people, this notion that the state is absolved from any responsibility and that, actually, the city should take all of this on, that the mayor in isolation could solve this. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

If we say, “We got this. Everyone can stay here, everyone is allowed to live in these inhumane conditions,” then we have no purpose for our partners, and these individuals end up facing the most inhumane circumstances with really little hope for additional shelters or supportive housing to be created outside of what a single city can do.

We created the rapid intervention team because working with the county at the lead as our partner on large-scale encampment closures, we wanted to be able to respond faster on a small scale when encampments begin.

We built this team that has initiated with federal dollars from the pandemic to respond as quickly as possible to reports of encampments being established. They come out with trying to connect those individuals with services, letting them know if they’re camping in an area that prohibits camping, like public spaces. They can do a cleanup and they can connect people with services before the county needs to come in and do a deep and large-scale abatement.

There is a third part of this, which is the enforcement of the camping ordinance, which has been on the books since the ‘60s in the city. We always try to give people the opportunity to move before they receive a citation. Even if they receive a citation, the jail is not necessarily going to accept them, and it likely becomes another criminal justice issue that they have to overcome before they can receive housing.

There is a portion of the unsheltered population that is resistant to going into shelters for myriad reasons. What is the city doing and what else could it do to help this population get off the streets?

This is the tiny home village. This is the 430 permanent supportive and transitional units that are beginning to open right now with our county and state partners’ funding. This is the biggest single leap forward in permanent supportive housing that we’ve ever seen.

We know that the homeless resource centers are designed to be brief touch points in someone’s experience of homelessness. The vast majority of people who touch the homeless services system in the state resolve within six months, and they don’t come back into the system.

The people on the street whom we’re talking about have increased since the state tapered off on the creation of permanent supportive housing back in 2017. When that funding went away and permanent supportive housing stopped being created, but we kept being the fastest growing state in the nation, we’ve been playing catch-up as a state, even though these have been an amazing two years of legislative investment in affordable housing.

The on-street portion of those who experience homelessness are higher need, and certainly higher impact on the broader community, but they require more complicated solutions, like different types of housing, like tiny homes, communal-based housing, and we need more of it.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, State Homelessness Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, Stephanie Ramirez and son James, 4, during the opening of The Aster, a new complex at 255 S. State, which offers 190 residential and mixed-income units, open-air spaces and community gathering spaces, May 2, 2023.

Rocky Anderson’s main policy proposal in this space is calling for the creation of a sanctioned camp or multiple sanctioned camps. What are your views on sanctioned camps?

The city taking that on is both outside of our lane and completely unsupported by the county’s mental or behavioral health dollars or the state, who actually are doing that work right now.

Rocky, maybe he doesn’t know this, but Wayne [Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator] received a million dollars from the Legislature this session to create a sanctioned camp, and we are actively supporting his work to find a location and be able to stand one up as quickly as possible.

I know that he’s hopeful he can have something before this winter, and that’s our ambition as well. This should be run from the state level with the state’s investment, and we are happy to be partners.

In what way is the city supporting the siting of that shelter?

Wayne is exploring state-owned properties at this point, and there are many properties that the state owns. He has not asked us for any city property, but we’ve connected our Community and Neighborhoods team, which runs the planning and zoning and building permitting and all of that with Wayne, so that if he finds a piece of land that would require some approval by the city or temporary land use, that we could begin those conversations as quickly as possible.

If he [Niederhauser] finds something that needs utilities and or different levels of utilities, then we would be very anxious to work with him to make sure that those things could be made available as quickly as possible.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall kicks off her reelection campaign at The Neighborhood Hive in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 15, 2023.

There have been some who have advocated giving unsheltered Utahns an option of either getting help or going to jail. What do you think of that approach, and what resources are available in jail?

I can tell you that our city justice court is a resource that is available. As people are exiting incarceration, we have court hours at the jail so they can see a judge and hopefully resolve any outstanding warrants, and in that same space, they can connect with housing locators or treatment services.

By and large, we aren’t talking about felons. We’re talking about individuals, especially individuals with severe mental illness, who are living unsheltered, maybe committing misdemeanors, and they may just as often be the victims of crimes. That cycle has an impact on the system as a whole from a cost perspective, but especially on this individual’s barriers to actually receiving the help they need.

The criminal justice system was never designed to be a solution to homelessness or treatment for mental illness. Being homeless is not a crime. Committing crimes needs to be addressed. But jail time for misdemeanors that are actually more rooted in severe mental illness will not treat severe mental illness.

We have to have a system that works together, which may very well include the criminal justice system as much as it would our police department or the district attorney’s office and mental and behavioral treatment providers and others to work together to look holistically at an individual’s needs and what their impacts are by not being treated and housed with supportive services.

This cruel and flippant remark that you should give people the option of going to jail or getting mental health treatment is missing the mark.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

The elephant in my brain all of the time around this subject is, for all the dollars Salt Lake City’s invested, and all the thousands of units we’ve helped to create, and our creative approaches to getting services to people on the street where they’re at, we can never solve this on our own. No city has. We have to have partners. We can’t walk away angry and throw bombs because we’re mad at the state over this or the county won’t do it our way on that.

The most detrimental thing for homelessness would be one of the levels of government, be it the city mayor, the county mayor, the governor’s office who says, “I’m not going to work with you anymore. This is your fault and I’m walking away.” It all dissolves at that point.

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