Utah’s homeless community and activists respond after protest and arrests

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Sanchez and Billie Scott talk about their new non profit organization Addict to Advocate during an outreach effort at Taufer Park on Thursday, January 9, 2020. The group helps unsheltered individuals clean up their campsites in advance of Health Department cleanups so they don't lose items they need in cold weather. This was the first day they helped clean a camp.

Billie Scott and Mike Sanchez fill three black garbage bags full of clothes, sleeping bags and blankets at a homeless encampment at Taufer Park in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday afternoon and prepare to haul them away.

The items aren’t going into the trash. Instead, the pair planned to take everything home to wash and then return to people experiencing homelessness later that day.

“That’s something we can do that no one else can do, because we’ve been here every day with them building relationships,” Sanchez said. “So they trust us to give us the only stuff they have to keep them warm.”

Sanchez and Scott, who is formerly homeless, have heightened their involvement in issues affecting people experiencing homelessness in recent weeks, alongside activists from various community organizations who have been providing food, clothing and even their own warming trailer to the community.

But this was the first cleanup where Sanchez and Scott — members of the newly-formed group Addict to Advocate — have been on site ahead of a planned Salt Lake County Health Department cleanup in an effort to keep people experiencing homelessness from losing the equipment that helps keep them warm in the winter.

“I think it’s great,” said Stephanie Arnold, who was at Taufer Park the day of the cleanup. “It’s a positive and helpful thing.”

The Health Department has agreed to give the group a heads-up before they come out “so people don’t get their blankets stolen, they don’t get their sleeping bags taken and confiscated,” Scott said.

Any items remaining in a location after the date and time of an announced cleanup are considered “abandoned,” according to the department, and will be disposed of.

Camping cleanups have been going on for years but have come under greater public scrutiny in recent weeks as activists and homeless advocates have raised concerns about bed shortages in the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers and as a result of attention from various activist groups.

The Health Department cleanups are meant to mitigate any public health hazards as a result of camping (which is illegal in Salt Lake County and in most cities in the county), including human waste, syringes and anything that transmits disease or harms the environment.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the department, told The Salt Lake Tribune that conversations with Addict to Advocate are in their early phases but said he’s “optimistic” the group can work alongside other service providers that seek to help people experiencing homelessness ahead of the cleanups, like Volunteers of America Utah and Valley Behavioral Health.

“If they want to approach people experiencing homelessness in a different way using a different harm reduction model than some of our existing partners do, I don’t think there’s any harm in trying that,” he said of Addict to Advocate. “We’re game to try anything we think has the potential to help, so let’s give it a shot is where we are.”

Scott was one of the founding members of the Take Shelter Coalition, a group of community organizations — including Civil Riot, Utah Against Police Brutality and the Democratic Socialists of Salt Lake — that were involved in a Jan. 4 protest at Washington Square Park in downtown Salt Lake City that culminated in the arrests of 17 demonstrators.

Since that night, during which activists who were camping clashed with police enforcing the park curfew until the early hours of the morning, Scott and Sanchez say they’ve “stepped away” from the coalition and are taking a different approach to addressing the issues facing unsheltered people.

The two remain friends with those groups and don’t want to criticize the motivations or actions of their fellow activists. But they think there’s a “better way to do it,” that can “make some real change,” Scott said, by working alongside community organizations rather than against them.

There appears to be a split about the effectiveness of the protest not only among organizers but also within the community they’re trying to help.

“Talking to a lot of unsheltered folks, either they were totally for it, loved it, or they were against it,” Sanchez said. “There’s not too much middle ground. Because they’re like, ‘OK, that just caused more problems — we usually get up and get out before police get there and then we stayed there and [our] stuff was lost.’ But I think the overall purpose was good.”

In interviews, several people experiencing homelessness who were at Washington Square that day said they left before police in riot gear descended on the encampment.

“When the police say that you’ve got to go, you’ve got to follow the rules,” said Rina Sommer-Brown, who’s currently staying at the new Gail Miller Homeless Resource Center in Salt Lake City.

For people experiencing homelessness, low-level offenses — like camping, jaywalking and open-container violations — can lead to arrest warrants that never get taken care of and fines they can’t pay. These interactions with the criminal justice system can ultimately serve as barriers to accessing services, housing and to landing jobs that could help them exit homelessness for good, some experts say.

Sommer-Brown, 52, said the Take Shelter Coalition has “helped us immensely” by bringing food and warming equipment over the past few weeks. But she felt the protest “was not the right approach at all.”

“We were all doing really well, everybody was getting along,” she said. “And then they decided to do the protest and it made it so that everybody’s against us again, you know what I mean?”

Jarod Hartlerode, 29, was packing up his belongings as police arrived that night. He characterized the police response to the encampment as overly aggressive but thought the protest was “pretty cool” overall and expressed appreciation for the activists with the Take Shelter Coalition.

“I think they were helping a lot,” he said. “They were providing clothes, food, shelter. If we didn’t have something, they’d have it. Hand warmers, hot cocoa, stuff like that.”

In the aftermath of the protest, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown commended his officers for exercising “great restraint” in removing the protesters. And he accused the group cleared from Washington Square of being agitators and inflaming tensions with police.

Utah Against Police Brutality, one of the members of the Take Shelter Coalition, condemned the department in a statement for “brutality,” “incompetence” and a “sheer lust for violence” and called on newly inaugurated Mayor Erin Mendenhall to begin her term by firing Brown.

In a news release after the protest, the Take Shelter Coalition pledged that its “struggle toward justice for the unsheltered community in Salt Lake City” will continue and said its members would go on feeding, warming and sheltering the new homeless resource centers don’t serve.

Scott and Sanchez, too, plan to continue their work to help people on the streets ahead of camping cleanups and to connect them to services that could move them off the streets for good.

“If I can help other people get those same resources” Scott received when she was homeless “to get where they need to be, that’s I feel like my calling right now,” she said.