Liberty Park homelessness: SLC officials promise more police, but citations a ‘last resort’

Camping has been an issue at the park for years, but officials say public feedback has increased this year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks, as Darin Mano listens, during a question and answer session on Liberty Park homelessness at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

Amid Liberty Park’s towering trees, manicured green spaces and well-traveled multi-use paths, residents this year have been seeing more homeless campers.

For years, people experiencing homelessness have pitched tents at the city’s oldest (and second largest) park. While it has been a point of contention, District 5 City Councilmember Darin Mano said, “the situation at the park has felt a lot different this year” and residents are sending his office more feedback than before.

On Tuesday, he brought together Mayor Erin Mendenhall, city homeless policy and outreach director Andrew Johnston, police community liaison Sam Fallows and Michelle Hoon, who runs the homeless engagement and response team, to answer residents’ questions.

“I wish I could tell you that by the end of today we will have told you how we’re going to solve the problem, and next week you’ll go there and you won’t see anyone camping in Liberty Park,” Mano said. “Unfortunately, I can’t promise that.” He did promise officials would share available resources and how it plans to address the issue.

Salt Lake City police detective Fallows said police would soon begin enforcing the park’s 11 p.m. curfew — just as soon as they have enough officers signed up for overtime to do the work.

He said officers also check in at the park throughout a day to create a “presence” and “help mitigate some of those issues,” although he wouldn’t say when, noting that would be an “officer safety issue.”

Those with immediate safety issues can call 911. Fallows said to report something less urgent, such as a broken window or something stolen, call the police nonemergency line at 801-799-3000. People can also report concerns on the SLC Mobile app. Hoon said her teams get tips about people in need through the app.

Citations a ‘last resort’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate at Liberty Park on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Camping has been an issue at the park for years, but officials say public feedback has increased this year.

Officials fielded another question about camping: Why are people allowed to camp despite city ordinances against it? Why can they camp on bike lanes?

Mendenhall said citations are a “last resort” measure for people who are not willing to engage with officers or move their belongings. She said it’s an ineffective way to get people housed or other services they might need.

“The more illegal infractions an individual has, and then potentially outstanding warrants from unresolved citations, then those are greater barriers to house that person,” she said. A conversation often works better.

Johnston said the question about bike lanes likely concerned the nearby 9 Line Trail, and showcased the difficulty city officials have when they force campers out of an area. Often, people move someplace nearby, like the trail, Herman Franks Park or nearby neighborhoods.

“So it’s a tricky medium there,” Johnston said, “about trying to enforce in the park but not necessarily enforcing them so they go to a more dangerous section for them or others.”

Hoon also mentioned the park has staffed rangers who help enforce park rules and build connections with campers.

A ‘complex and difficult’ issue

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Johnston, director of Salt Lake City homeless policy and outreach, speaks as Mayor Mendenhall listens, during a question and answer session on Liberty Park homelessness at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

While the forum was about Liberty Park, many of the questions were about the city’s general homeless response.

Mano said homelessness is “the most complex and difficult” issue the city is facing. Officials must juggle long- and short-term solutions to the ongoing, growing problem while attending to immediate safety needs and working with officials at the county and state level to address the same issues.

Some solutions could look like the council-approved tiny home village, Mano said, or zoning reform that would allow more dense housing in more parts of the city.

Mendenhall said in the absence of a federal model — or assistance — municipalities have had to look to each other for solutions to homelessness. Since Salt Lake City officials visited Miami, Florida, last year, they have been talking about that city’s model for dealing with homelessness.

One appealing idea: taxing to help fund supportive services. In Miami, the city tapped into its tourist revenue and taxed restaurant and bars.

“Maybe bars and restaurants isn’t the right way for this area to get that money,” Mendenhall said, “but that’s something now that Wayne Niederhauser, at the state, and county Mayor (Jenny) Wilson are exploring — what kind of mechanism could be used to create ongoing funding for the operations.”

On Tuesday, mayors across Salt Lake County turned over a winter shelter plan to Niederhauser. Mendenhall declined to release additional details about the plan, saying that was the state’s job.

“But I can tell you we have never had the plan together this early in the year. We’ve had broad participation from mayors across the county and that the plan proposes to shelter more people than ever before,” she said. “As it should.”