A legal camp for unsheltered Utahns is coming to Salt Lake City. This much seems certain.
What is uncertain — and unknown — is where it will be placed.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she and other city officials have a couple of parcels in mind within Utah’s capital, but a location has yet to be finalized. And she declined to share what areas they are considering.
“I’m not going to tell you that,” she said Thursday.
In June, the City Council voted to spend $500,000 on regulated camping as a way to chip away at the proliferation of illegal campsites throughout the city.
City leaders intend to combine forces with the state Office of Homeless Services, to explore an outdoor shelter option this winter.
Now the administration is scrambling to get a small site functioning before the first frost hits.
The city’s approved campsite will be Phase 1, Mendenhall said. “The Phase 2 operation will move onto the land the state is working to secure.”
The mayor said she expects to announce a location for the camp no later than the last week of September.
Mendenhall’s goal is to get a location up and running by the time additional winter beds come on line at the various shelters, which leaders throughout Salt Lake County anticipate happening by late October.
How many would stay at the camp?
Andrew Johnston, Mendenhall’s top adviser on homelessness, said the camp would host 30 to 50 people a night, ideally on about an acre, and concedes it likely won’t make a noticeable difference in the number of illegal camps.
“A pilot will demonstrate the efficacy of this way of doing [an] emergency shelter,” he said, “but in itself is not going to give enough capacity alone for everybody who’s out.”
The city intends to work with the state to select an operator for the site.
If the city and state pursued an outdoor shelter separately, Johnston said, he isn’t sure the funding each level of government has committed would last long. He hopes the first phase of the project will be able to stay up through at least June.
“These,” he said, “are very expensive programs to run.”
Johnston said he suspects the campground will look less like tents in an open space and more like the sheds state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser has promoted.
The outdoor shelters the city and state want to set up would be in addition to the village of tiny homes bound for Salt Lake City’s west side.
Niederhauser doubts the state site will be ready until next spring or summer, because the property and provider have yet to be picked.
He said specifics on a partnership with the city have not been settled.
“We haven’t,” he said, “put anything absolute together.”
Legal camping a focus of mayoral race
Sanctioned camping has percolated in recent years as a way to decrease the number of illegal camps that have spread across Utah’s capital, with west-side council members Victoria Petro and Alejandro Puy being among the strategy’s most vocal supporters.
Former Mayor Rocky Anderson, Mendenhall’s chief election rival, has made legal camping his top policy proposal in his bid for a return to City Hall.
He said the city’s proposal falls short of what’s needed.
“What the state’s contemplating doing, and now the mayor’s apparently jumping on Wayne Niederhauser’s idea,” he said, “is to try out a pilot project for relatively few people in extremely expensive individual units.”
Anderson said he would prefer to create a larger site at the shuttered Wingpointe Golf Course, near Salt Lake City International Airport, or somewhere else like it where residents can find stability and a path to housing.
In 2021, Mendenhall voiced opposition to designating a place in the city for people to camp in a tent legally.
A year ago, she said she was skeptical of the effectiveness of legal campgrounds, arguing that regulated sites can attract a newer population of individuals experiencing homelessness.
She said at the time, however, that her administration was working on setting up pods, not tents, to keep Utahns out of the cold.
In December, she said a well-managed sanctioned campground could be “an excellent addition to the system” but must be led by partners in the state and across the county.
Mendenhall said the city’s pursuit of an outdoor shelter option this year is in line with her previous position on legal camping because the state is leading the charge.
“Because the state’s doing the contract and this operation will liaise directly into Phase 2,” Mendenhall said, “this satisfies and really fulfills the state leadership that they should take, and I’m grateful for their partnership.”