Should Utah give homeless people a place to camp? Here are arguments for and against.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall opposes creating a place for people struggling with homelessness to pitch a tent, but newly elected council members are open to the idea.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Camp Last Hope was built on abandoned railroad tracks under the freeway for protection from the rain and the snow. Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

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Utah doesn’t have enough shelter beds for people without homes, but these individuals can’t legally camp in a parking strip or a park, near train tracks or under the freeway.

In Salt Lake City, which has the state’s most concentrated homeless population, police are regularly enforcing the camping ban for the first time in years, breaking up mini-tent cities and pushing the unsheltered farther out of the downtown core.

For many people without homes and the advocates who help them, and even for Salt Lake City’s two newest City Council members, there’s an obvious solution: They want the city to designate a place for people to camp legally. They also want a spot where people can park cars, vans and recreational vehicles if they sleep there.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who gets presented with this idea often, has a quick and unequivocal answer.

“Heck no,” she said. “Sorry, Salt Lake City is not doing a designated camping area.”

Mendenhall said it isn’t as easy as finding an empty field and declaring it a legal place to pitch a tent. Such a spot would need security. It would need portable restrooms and cleaning stations. It would need trash removal. Electricity. Heat. And once a city signs off on an encampment, it is hard to shut down.

“We can’t afford it,” she said during an October meeting of two community councils. “We can’t police it. We can’t do the engagement at it, and it would be a very poor situation.

“And I believe that in Salt Lake City — where we have four strong seasons, some really difficult weather conditions for parts of our year — we can do better than sanctioning an encampment.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks about the status of her goal to have a tiny-home pilot in place this winter during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 29, 2021. At rear is a conceptual drawing.

She prefers the idea of a tiny-home village, small structures in a fenced area with shared resources. The city is working with the Other Side Academy to build such a place. She originally hoped it would be ready for this year. But this concept is still working its way through the planning process, and construction is not likely to start for months.

In the meantime, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has identified what it believes will be enough overflow shelter beds to get people out of the wintertime cold. This includes converting a west-side Ramada at the intersection of Redwood Road and North Temple into a temporary shelter, something Mendenhall and the City Council grudgingly agreed to do. The coalition says that overflow is vital, while it opposes a sanctioned encampment.

A sanctioned site

But there are plenty of others who are open to the idea. That includes Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homeless services coordinator.

A former state Senate president, he was tapped by the governor, to address the state’s growing issue with homelessness.

Niederhauser has spent months talking to people who live on the streets and the advocates who support them. He also has traveled to other cities, including Austin, Texas, where he saw a sanctioned encampment, once run by the government but now in the hands of a nonprofit.

He said it was dirty, really dirty. And disorganized. But he left intrigued.

“A sanctioned site could work,” he said, “but there has to be at least a rule that you have to keep your place clean, and there would have to be some security.”

Austin’s camp had a nearby building with air conditioning for those times when the heat became dangerous. In Utah, Niederhauser said, there would need to be some place to get warm in the winter.

A city also would have to agree to this, which is clearly a challenge, but he sees some benefits.

Niederhauser said some of the unsheltered people he’s talked to don’t want to go to a shelter, feeling uncomfortable and unsafe in crowded indoor settings. He said may have post-traumatic stress disorder and high levels of anxiety. A secure, sanctioned spot would allow these folks to sleep easier at night and have less fear that their belongings would get stolen.

“We are trying to force people into a life that they are not used to or never experienced or distrust,” Niederhauser said. “That’s why I think we need to look at all avenues.”

Salt Lake City’s west side elected two new council members this November. Victoria Petro-Eschler is the District 1 representative, already sworn in after the previous council member resigned. Her district includes Rose Park and other northwest neighborhoods. Alejandro Puy will represent District 2, which includes Glendale and Poplar Grove.

Composite of Victoria Petro-Eschler and Alejandro Puy.

They have heard from residents frustrated by unsheltered people camping near their homes or businesses and older RVs lining the streets.

“We need some lasting solutions on the homeless issue,” Puy said. “Right now, what the city is doing is kicking them from one corner to another. It is no solution.”

Puy wants “legalized camping grounds” and suggested they could be in church parking lots, shifting every so often. Denver’s done this. Seattle has as well.

Petro-Eschler brought up the same notion in a separate interview, describing the current situation as “chaos.”

“We need to contain this,” she said, “and say this is where you are allowed to be.”

Last hope

Mendenhall’s reservations infuriate Ty Bellamy, a community organizer with the Black Lives for Humanity Movement. She said she already has proved that an encampment can work in Utah.

“We literally already had this at ‘Camp Last Hope,’” she said. “We had this.”

Last winter, Bellamy led Camp Last Hope, created under Interstate 15 on Union Pacific’s property. It opened in December and eventually grew to include 211 people at its peak. The city and the Salt Lake County Health Department shut it down in February.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Bellamy (right) talks to Utah Slim about ways to improve the conditions at Camp Last Hope on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

The health department said it allowed the camp to stay open as long as it did because the encampment was orderly and cleaner than most.

The camp was orderly. Volunteers handled food and clothing donations. Others broke apart pallets to get wood for small fires. Every tent had its own camping toilet. Volunteers helped remove the waste, including trash.

Bellamy, who slept there many nights, said she removed those who posed trouble.

“Every night we had a meeting to explain the rules,” she said. “You can’t do anything that brings the police and you can’t do anything to bring the health department.”

Bellamy sees Mendenhall’s objections as a slap at people who are unsheltered. She said many stay in their tents or their cars because they fear if they leave, their stuff will get stolen. A designated camp would greatly limit that concern.

“When you are preventing someone from having stability,” Bellamy said, “it comes off as you telling them you don’t care about them.”

Bellamy also dislikes it when officials say they are cleaning up homeless camps. She said camping is a choice, a way for people to recreate and get out of the city and connect with nature.

“You are weaponizing that word, and you are miscategorizing what these people are doing,” she said. “What they are actually doing is existing. They are trying to survive.”

Bellamy said the city doesn’t have to run a designated camp. She’ll do it, again.

“Give me the money, and let me go,” she said. “Let me do Camp Last Hope again.”

Right now, Bellamy and her organization support Mendenhall’s call for other cities to offer overflow shelter beds or hotel vouchers. They also encourage the mayor to do more for those without homes. But Bellamy said she is considering opening another camp because it is getting colder.

In March, the Salt lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness released its analysis of permissible camping, saying it was among the first options it explored and rejected as it looked for overflow shelter beds.

The document notes that the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness doesn’t consider it a best practice, particularly in cold weather places. The coalition also argued that it would have to provide tents, supplies and sanitation, making it expensive.

“By the time you get all of that in place, you might as well put walls around them and a roof over their heads and keep them safe,” said Jean Hill, the coalition’s co-chair. “They’re still going to be safer inside than they are in a sanctioned campsite.”

Even so, Hill didn’t outright reject the idea and even suggested that Bellamy talk to the group about running a camp.

“It is a conversation worth having,” she said, “if there is someone like Ty who is willing to organize things.”

The city also points to studies by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that say encampments often have a high amount of drug use. But HUD didn’t outright reject the idea of sanctioned campsites either. Rather, it called it a temporary solution to a growing problem in America.

“Such encampments are not themselves a solution to homelessness,” a 2018 HUD report said, “and cities will need to invest in permanent solutions, such as housing that is affordable to extremely low-income people.”

Mendenhall and Niederhauser are working on that, too, planning to seek as much as $200 million from the Utah Legislature to support more housing, including for those who make little money.

But for advocates like Bellamy, the concern is more about this winter and the months to come. She worries the city, the county and the state have prioritized breaking up camps without offering enough support for those forced to pack up their tents.

“We have one question,” Bellamy said, “and they won’t answer it: Where do you want us to go?”