Colorful painted murals of people who have been killed by police looked on Wednesday as workers dispersed an encampment of unsheltered people in Salt Lake City’s Fleet Block area.
Salt Lake County Health Department officials say the camp “cleanup” — which followed offers to residents from service providers and came in the middle of a rainstorm with wind gusts — was necessary to alleviate environmental and health concerns at the site.
“We get there are all kinds of other variables,” Dale Keller, the county’s bureau manager of environmental health, told reporters on Wednesday. “Addiction issues, mental health, housing crunch, those types of things. Our focus is clearly public and environmental health. This area had certainly tipped to the point where it had become a problem in both of those areas for the community.”
City and county officials have faced complaints in recent weeks from some nearby residents and business owners — including Fisher Brewing co-owner Tim Dwyer — about the impact of the encampment on the community.
But the sweep also comes as abatements themselves have faced increased scrutiny from the city’s activist population, and as the City Council weighs a $650,000 budget amendment that would provide for voluntary police overtime shifts to accompany the Health Department during them.
There’s been a sharp spike in the number of health department activities attended by police, city documents from late March show — from 640 in all of 2019 to 1,071 in 2020.
And the city estimated that an additional 500 camp “reestablishments” would take place throughout the remainder of the fiscal year. The overtime security shifts, which include work “prior to, during, and after camp mitigation,” typically pay a time and a half rate of $65 an hour.
Neighbors ‘deserve to feel safe’
Fleet Block neighbor Paul Johnson told the Salt Lake City Council last week that he supports budgeting more money for police support at cleanups.
“We are living in unprecedented times, and those who live near these areas deserve to feel safe in our homes and neighborhoods,” he said, noting that he lives around the corner and could see the encampment from his office window.
“I do not discount there are many good folks living in these encampments,” he added, “but it’s unreasonable for folks living in these surrounding neighborhoods to be expected to just put up with and not seek further public safety when our communities feel lawless.”
Opponents of the abatements argue, though, that they’re ineffective at addressing the root causes of homelessness, lead unsheltered individuals to lose important belongings and often retraumatize an already vulnerable community.
Jon Ribbons, who said he lives near the Fleet Block, told the council that the sweeps feel “like somebody came into our community and tore it up.”
“There’s people all over the place,” he said. “There’s people who need to find new blankets for the night, new tents for the night. And very often it falls on the good graces of people in the area to, like, not call the police when someone’s sleeping in the doorway.”
City officials stressed that those who were at the camp that was dispersed Wednesday had been offered access to health, housing and other resources ahead of the cleanup, as part of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s Community Commitment Program.
Through that process, the mayor said Tuesday that five people had their court cases heard through justice court, 25 people received COVID-19 vaccines, one person tested positive for the coronavirus and one person was moved into shelter.
Health officials estimate the cleanup gathered 30 to 35 tons of garbage, including tents and mattresses, bikes, blankets and clothes and other personal belongings that people had abandoned.
Pushing for different solutions
Many of those who were supportive of the increased police funding, which is still subject to a vote of the council, said they see the abatements as necessary to mitigate the impacts of the camps.
But opponents argued the money could be better used to support the city’s unsheltered residents and move them out of homelessness for good.
Kim Correa, CEO of The INN Between, a hospice facility for people experiencing homeless, noted that the city is in the middle of a pandemic and a housing crisis “that’s been exacerbated by a severe shortage of shelter beds.”
“We could use this money to increase the number of emergency shelter beds, for example, by having some of the winter overflow shelters stay open,” she said at the meeting last week.
“We could also use some of this money to establish an organized, supervised and peaceful camping area,” she said, “that has the needed facilities such as toilets, showers, garbage, and the oversight that people need to feel safe so that they can go to sleep and not fear they’ll be molested or robbed of all their belongings.”
Mendenhall has said she’s not interested in a sanctioned encampment, an option that has also been knocked down by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
But in light of fears that the city’s street camping population would grow once the winter overflow shelter spaces close this month, the Salt Lake City Council did vote unanimously at a limited public meeting Tuesday to keep the one at the Airport Inn Hotel on the city’s west side open until June 22.
That’s the latest the temporary zoning regulation could be extended under state law, and it’s expected to help protect the unsheltered population during the spring’s unpredictable weather patterns.
City leaders are also exploring the creation of a tiny home facility that could help move people off the streets — a vision that could become a reality as soon as November.