Salt Lake City residents continue to criticize officials' homeless encampment cleanup efforts and call for more compassion for people experiencing homelessness.
About 50 people voiced their frustration over two hours during a formal City Council meeting Tuesday evening, urging officials not make the same mistakes that besieged the community after Operation Rio Grande, a three-phase plan intended to reduce homelessness.
“If we want to see less chronic homelessness, the answer is not to throw away people’s belongings and shuffle them around to other parts of the valley,” said Nate Housely. “The closing of the Road Home was an attempt to do that, and the resources were not there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened conditions for the city’s homeless population. Businesses and public buildings have closed, giving people fewer places to use the restroom and seek shelter during the day. More people are unemployed and unable to pay rent. Commenters called on the City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall to do more to alleviate the challenges experienced by disadvantaged communities.
“A lot of places are shut down right now,” said Jinx Utah. “With less mental health resources, less food, less access to medical care, these folks are really suffering.”
The commenters also echoed a similar refrain heard throughout the summer — to defund the Salt Lake City Police Department and redirect that money to make housing and health care more affordable.
“I’m continually frustrated by the abdication of reasonability by the mayor, the chief of police and the council in regards to violence and injustice we see with our police department,” said Mike Braak. “We’ve seen it for years and years with our most vulnerable neighbors experiencing homelessness, whose belongings are stolen under the guise of order and public health, [who] are charged with crimes for even attempting to survive in a city that sees them as a problem rather than a lack of affordable housing, health care and support.”
Salt Lake County’s three resource centers are operating near capacity and the Health Department in engaging in weekly encampment cleanups. Those efforts are part of a two-step plan Mendenhall described earlier this month. The first phase is cleanup and the second is an outreach effort to help the unsheltered. Health officials say the cleanups are necessary to mitigate public hazards like biowaste and needles.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness called on the city to find more permanent solutions, like a permitted area to camp with places to shower and wash clothes, as well as free and safe needle exchanges and housing vouchers. They also called on the city to be more transparent about the cleanup efforts.
“There’s been no plan put into place as to where these people will go” after the camp cleanups, said Eliza McKinney. “Instead you keep doing these abatements and camp closures because it looks good in the short term for developers and middle class residents.”