‘5 minutes to begin packing’ — SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall orders crackdown on homeless camps

She expresses confidence in police Chief Mike Brown while a community partnership pledges millions to help move unsheltered individuals from the streets to housing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A "No Camping" signs at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. Salt Lake City police have begun cracking down on illegal homeless camps as more shelter beds have become available ahead of winter.

West Valley City • Enough.

Shelter beds are available. So homeless Utahns camping on the streets can agree to go to them or face legal consequences.

Their choice.

That was the heart of Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s message Thursday when she announced that Salt Lake City police have begun cracking down on illegal homeless camps as more shelter beds have become available.

In an interview later, she also expressed confidence in police Chief Mike Brown as his officers undertake this stepped-up enforcement.

Appearing at a news conference at West Valley City’s temporary homeless shelter, Mendenhall said the additional capacity — created by the winter overflow shelter plan — has given police the ability to more strictly enforce the city’s no-camping ordinance.

“People don’t have to go into shelters,” she said, “but living in our public spaces is not an option.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces a crackdown on homeless camps at a news conference at West Valley City’s temporary homeless shelter on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Mendenhall’s move comes amid a heated mayoral campaign that has focused largely on the city’s response to homelessness and as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has become increasingly vocal in his opposition to camping on the streets.

The mayor insists her preference with the new emphasis on enforcement is that homeless Utahns will accept shelter or other resources, such as mental health care. Officers, she said, will provide 24-7 transportation to shelters with available bed space.

But leaving residents on the streets, she said, is simply inhumane.

After appearing alongside the governor and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson at Thursday’s news conference, Mendenhall said in an interview that she has a high level of confidence in her police chief, who was in attendance but did not speak at the event.

“He has a hard job,” she said. “Here’s what I want in a police chief: decreasing crime, recognition that change needs to happen in policing and a willingness to implement that change consistently, and relationships with the community of trust, communication and transparency, relationships with different demographics in our community and their unique cultures. And Chief Brown does a good job at all of those things.”

Asked if she would keep Brown on the job if she is elected to a second term, Mendenhall said that is for a separate conversation.

“I gave you too much time today on this,” she said.

Additional arrests underway

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he has “zero interest in unsanctioned camping” in Utah.

Since shelter space expanded, Mendenhall said, Salt Lake City police have made dozens of arrests for crimes that include drug possession and outstanding warrants.

Those who violate the camping ordinance and refuse to go to shelters may be issued a citation, she said. Repeat offenses will result in jail time.

“If it’s only about homelessness or about camping in public spaces,” Mendenhall said, “then our officers would tell them, ‘You can’t be here,’ as they do. ‘This is a public space. You have five minutes to begin packing up and moving, and if you move around the corner to the next public space, then I’m going to give you a citation.’”

When shelter space is unavailable, Mendenhall noted, enforcement will be relaxed because those who are living on the streets won’t have the option to go inside.

For his part, Cox has not minced words when talking about illegal camping. He told reporters last month that camping in Utah’s capital and across the state must be stopped, and that his administration would work with mayors and law enforcement to ensure that happens.

He affirmed his position Thursday, saying he has “zero interest in unsanctioned camping” in Utah.

“That’s why we are doing this,” he said. “It is bad for our people, and it’s bad for those experiencing homelessness. It’s bad for everybody. It’s the worst possible option.”

The governor said additional enforcement measures will extend beyond Utah’s capital.

The mayor’s evolution on homelessness

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City police ask campers to move in March.

The stricter enforcement strategy represents a more aggressive tactic from Mendenhall toward policing homeless Utahns.

In May, she said the notion that people should be given the option to seek mental health treatment or go to jail is “cruel and flippant,” adding that it is “missing the mark.”

While crimes should be addressed, she said at the time, forcing jail time for misdemeanor offenses rooted in mental illness “will not treat severe mental illness.”

The city’s camping ordinance has been on the books since the 1960s, and Mendenhall has said police have enforced the measure by issuing citations only as a last resort for those who are not willing to engage with officers or move their belongings. Enforcement, she has said, is an ineffective way to get people into housing or connected with resources.

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

On Thursday, Mendenhall said the city is balancing the potential for creating those additional barriers with the effects that come from not doing anything at all.

The latter, the mayor said, is not more humane.

“This isn’t a static situation,” she said, “but to see the horrors that have played out on our city’s streets when we’ve allowed, based on availability of shelter capacity, for people to live in ways that are ultimately devastating for their own lives and highly impactful to the surrounding community is not the right path.”

Salt Lake City is in the midst of partnering with state officials to create a legal homeless camp at 600 West and 300 South in a move that officials say will bring 50 additional beds to the homeless services system. The idea is to provide a lower-barrier shelter option for those who may shy away from a traditional shelter setting.

The project faced a hurdle when the state couldn’t find an operator last month. A new request for bids from potential service providers was issued Thursday afternoon.

Mendenhall has faced political headwinds over the city’s homelessness response, receiving nearly constant criticism from her opponents as she campaigns for reelection.

Former Mayor Rocky Anderson said Thursday that camping should be eliminated as long as humane alternatives exist.

What’s most important is that there is adequate shelter available for every homeless person in the city, he said, adding that the housing situation in Utah’s capital would be in a better place if projects that Mendenhall has touted had come to fruition.

“Once again, we’re at the beginning of winter and the mayor’s scurrying about,” he said, “trying to make sure people think that she’s doing something about homelessness.”

Advocate and small-business owner Michael Valentine, a first-time candidate for office, called the new enforcement measures “abhorrent” and said they represent “a dark day” for the city.

“This is really just shameful behavior on the city’s part,” Valentine said, “to criminalize homelessness, to threaten people with jail or citations.”

Enforcement pledge secures private funding

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Ivory makes a a comment during a news conference in West Valley City, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Also announced Thursday was a major cash infusion by the Utah Impact Partnership, an organization backed by influential institutions and families within the state, to support homelessness response efforts.

Ivory Homes CEO Clark Ivory, chair of the partnership’s board, said the group recently wrapped up fundraising on a $15 million commitment for “strategic projects” that will make a difference on homelessness.

The money, Ivory said, includes contributions from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intermountain Health and the Larry H. Miller family.

Ivory said the group has steered dollars into a detox center and will work to get more clinical behavioral health specialists on the streets, build more permanent supportive housing and contribute to nonprofits.

“Most important of all,” he said, “we’re investing in those amongst us who have enormous hardship and who need a helping hand.”

The group, he said, will raise another $15 million to bolster government efforts.

Ivory said the Utah Impact Partnership was waiting for a commitment of additional enforcement before agreeing to kick in money. Raising funds without assurances of more enforcement, he said, was a “hurdle” the organization faced.

“As soon as we got the sense that this was coming together,” Ivory said, “we had several that came forward and were willing to contribute.”