In the middle of 500 West behind the old Rio Grande station there’s a tree-lined public square.
The median islands are home to many of Salt Lake City’s unsheltered — but on Monday residents were told to pack up their belongings and tall chain-link fences were erected around the medians. Not a tent could be found in the medians or on the adjacent sidewalks on Wednesday morning.
The Tribune reached out to Salt Lake City’s director of homeless policy and outreach, Andrew Johnston, to ask why the fences had been put up.
The islands were fenced off because the city’s Public Lands department planned to do some clean up and repair work, Johnston said. He noted that over the summer, the trees on the strip of land provided needed shade for the city’s unsheltered population. With weather cooling down and winter overflow shelters opening soon, this appeared to be the best time to begin, Johnston said.
The fences have angered advocates and residents alike, who are tired of moving and packing up their belongings and don’t know where else to go. The housing crisis has yet to be solved and waiting lists for affordable housing options are long. One woman described needing to basically “stalk” service providers just to be assigned a caseworker. Solutions — including a tiny home village and temporary shelter are underway — but people are losing hope.
What work will be done?
Public Lands plans to repair sprinklers and lighting and clean up litter, medical waste and needles said Mia McCain, communications and engagement manager for the department. Crews will also work to bring the grass back to life in the area. The work will be done over the next 90 days. “We’re also going to use it as an opportunity to do some additional work,” McCain said, “and kind of rejuvenate the elements, whether it’s a park or not, that make it that green space.”
Where will unsheltered people go?
“We still have a no camping ordinance in the city,” Johnston said.
By the time the fences come down in December, “I’m hoping everybody will be able to get inside before then,” Johnston said. " I hope it won’t be an issue because we’ll have those other options available.”
Mayor Erin Mendehnall recently announced that in partnership with the state, the city will open a temporary shelter on a plot of land on the corner of 300 South and 600 West near the Utah Transit Authority’s Central Station. The space will accommodate up to 50 people in “podlike” structures with electricity and locking doors.
At the press conference on Thursday, she noted that the new shelter would not be a solution for everyone, but “it’s the beginning of a new service model that we haven’t ever seen in the state of Utah, and it’s on top of 600 shelter beds that we’ll be opening in November with the winter overflow plan.”
Unsheltered community & advocates are angry
On Wednesday morning, a Tribune reporter headed south of the 500 West islands and just a block away found one couple with a tarp set up on a strip of grass by the Interstate-15 entrance on 400 South.
Angela Appleby, 49, and her husband Andrew Hansen said they’d been pushed from an area near North Temple south to the islands and were preparing to move once again that afternoon.
Appleby said she’s been homeless in Salt Lake City for nearly 10 years, but she hoped to get into housing soon. She said the police were respectful earlier this week when they asked them to move along, but she didn’t want to keep constantly shifting her belongings along city streets.
“We got this nice big tent but we sold it because we’re manifesting housing,” Appleby said.
A little farther down the way Donald Vogt, who goes by the name “The First Cowboy,” was sitting in a median with all his belongings packed up.
“I’m a senior citizen, I’m disabled and handicapped. I’ve got melanoma in both my legs, ankles, heels and feet. I’ve had two heart attacks and I live on social security,” Vogt said.
“How come I’m a criminal because I was evicted from my place of residence, and I’m forced to live out on the streets and I’m trying to survive? But if I set up a tent, I’m in violation of the law,” Vogt said.
“There’s no place to go and just going to the bathroom is a chore.”
Advocates for unsheltered Salt Lake City residents say that constantly being forced to move belongings is pushing many people over the edge.
“They’re consistently building around them and in front of them and not building for them,” said advocate Ty Bellamy, “Do you know how hurtful that is to these guys?”
While Public Lands is tasked with restoring 500 West islands, the spaces contain few park-like features, Bellamy noted. There are no drinking fountains or swing sets. “Nobody but the unsheltered people congregate on that grass,” she said. “We don’t have any space in the shelters. We don’t have the overflow [shelters] open yet, because it’s not winter yet. So where are they going to go?”