Camp Last Hope in Salt Lake City dispersing ahead of planned health department sweep

Many of the dozens of unsheltered individuals who have been living there will move to smaller encampments in the city.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign posted by the Salt Lake County Health Department Monday, Feb. 2, 2021, announcing that everyone was to be off the property for an abatement. Most of the unsheltered people who had been living in Camp Last Hope have dispersed to other, smaller encampments. 2021.

The tents at one of the largest and most organized homeless encampments Salt Lake City has seen in recent years began coming down this week ahead of a Salt Lake County Health Department “cleanup” planned for Thursday morning.

Organizers have spent the last few days helping disperse many of the more than 100 unsheltered individuals who have been living at Camp Last Hope — which is located in an industrial area in Utah’s capital city near 900 South and 500 West — to shelter, detox or smaller camps throughout the city.

Ty Bellamy, a community organizer with the Black Lives for Humanity Movement, said she was “heartbroken” to see the end of “everything that we’ve built there, what it was for the first month it was there, how peaceful, how clean, how beautiful, how safe.” But she said the work to help unsheltered communities will continue.

The vast majority of the people at Camp Last Hope went to new encampments and were “still out there” Wednesday night, she noted.

Camp Last Hope was closed to camping Wednesday and will be “cleaned” by the Salt Lake County Health Department on Thursday, according to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“Our team has been working directly with the camp organizers to keep them informed of the plans for closure and make sure the people in the camp have plenty of time to remove any of the belongings they want to take with them,” she told the City Council during a briefing on homelessness Tuesday.

City officials also organized a “resource fair” at the camp on Tuesday and Wednesday to connect people there with services like detox, justice court and housing and shelter, she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Last Hope campers started packing up Tuesday because of a scheduled "cleanup" by the health department on Thursday, Feb. 4.

During a public comment period at the council’s formal meeting on Tuesday, several Salt Lake City residents spoke against the decision to conduct the camp sweep, noting forecast snowstorms this week and asking the city to give people experiencing homelessness more time before clearing it.

“In giving people who do not have access to resources limited amounts of time to loop all of their belongings, people end up losing and leaving things behind,” said Emily Alworth, who said she wanted the Health Department to wait at least another week before dispersing the encampment. “Whether this is a tent that is a home for a family or this is a blanket that keeps someone warm at night, this could be the difference between life or death.”

Kseniya Kniazeva, an organizer with the Nomad Alliance, said she wanted the abatement postponed even longer — “until there is a permanent solution or place for them to move.”

“We’ve never had 150 people forcibly moved from a space before,” she added.

The abatement was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but city leaders pushed it a day after working with encampment organizers, Mendenhall said.

Organizers at Camp Last Hope have been conscious of the potential environmental and health concerns at the camp, doing daily walkthroughs to ensure it stayed clean and organizing clean needle exchanges, and that’s part of what’s kept it operating for so long without an abatement.

But health department officials say outdoor camps pose inherent public health risks and planned to conduct the sweep after receiving several complaints from residents as well as the private property owner, Union Pacific.

Raquel Espinoza, a company spokeswoman, told The Salt Lake Tribune in a statement last month that the organization was aware of Camp Last Hope and was working with local government leaders to abate it. She said the company has compassion for those who lack permanent housing but that safety “remains our highest priority.”

“Trespassing on railroad property is dangerous for the homeless [and] the public as well as Union Pacific employees,” she said.

Camp organizers told The Salt Lake Tribune their goal was to get everyone out of the camp by Wednesday afternoon. Afterward, volunteers planned to clean up any remaining items themselves so there would be no garbage when the health department arrived Thursday morning.

Editor’s noteAnyone seeking shelter is encouraged to call the coordinated entry intake line at 801-990-9999.