RVs have become a haven for Salt Lake City’s homeless and a headache for residents

Pilot project aims to keep these vehicles moving, but are they really an answer to helping the unsheltered?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Lane lives in his RV, moving from spot to spot in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

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The parking rules are the same for everyone in Salt Lake City. You can leave your car, truck or motor home on the street, but for only 48 straight hours.

After that, you can get a ticket or even towed.

The rules, decades old, never envisioned what the city is experiencing now, with people sleeping in often run-down recreational vehicles parked in clusters on west-side streets for days, if not weeks, at a time.

It has led to a big increase in complaints from residents and, at times, these RVs become inoperable.

But for some of those living in the RVs, the vehicles are their home, and they’re protective of the shelter and increased security they provide.

For most of his life, Chris Lane lived in a tent on the streets in Salt Lake City. It was a hard existence, and he doesn’t miss it. About a year ago, he got the money together to buy a beige 20-foot motor home.

“It’s a big step up,” he said, wearing a hoodie and coat on a cold November day.

Lane was parked in front of an industrial business on the city’s west side with four or five other RVs lined up behind him. His windows were covered, though you could still see his cat curled up on the dash.

He had been there about a week. He guessed he would be able to stay another week before parking enforcement would give him a 48-hour notice to move or get towed.

At that point, he would throw his RV in reverse because his transmission is shot and slowly move it to another spot, where he would park and wait for the next 48-hour notice. And on and on and on.

Lane is one of a growing number of nomadic people living in the Salt Lake Valley in vans, camper trailers or other RVs. Some have hit a rough patch, lost their homes and moved into a vehicle. Then there are people like Lane who see their RV as progress. All he wishes for is a place where he could just be, without worrying about frustrated homeowners or parking enforcement or police.

“This is my home,” said the 41-year-old. “I want to be able to park it somewhere.”

Pilot project starts up

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A note and citation on an impounded RV parked at Stauffer's Towing & Recovery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Salt Lake City has seen a big increase in complaints about people living in RVs and particularly about clusters of vehicles, which can lead to heaps of trash and concerns about sewage.

In reaction, the City Council approved a $100,000 pilot project that is now underway. Some of that money will help these people keep their RVs running, such as providing a new battery or replacing a blown starter or water pump. And some will go to tow yards, helping them cover the costs of getting rid of an abandoned RV.

“It’s pretty rare that an RV can’t be sort of fixed up to move or hauled someplace else,” said Andrew Johnston, the city’s director of homeless policy and outreach.

The program also encourages regular interactions with people living in their vehicles, which Johnston said may help some find more stable housing and, at the very least, should reduce the groups of vehicles regularly lined up on 900 South, 1700 South and other streets.

The city has partnered with the Volunteers of America’s outreach team, though none of the people living in RVs contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune had interacted with this group yet. The VOA declined an interview request for this story.

The city hopes the pilot project will last until at least June.

Johnston acknowledges this is “short-term intervention” for a vexing problem. As housing prices continue to rise, so have the numbers of people who can’t afford apartments. These RVs, like the homeless camps under viaducts and in city parks, may become a consistent visible reminder of the housing crisis that has hit Salt Lake City and urban areas across the country.

Losing everything

Michael Thompson and his wife moved into a camper about 12 years ago, while he was working in the Uinta Basin oil fields, and he’s lived on wheels ever since.

He loves the freedom it provides, that he could park in Salt Lake City one day and head into the mountains to do some fishing the next.

The problem is that he and other RV dwellers feel dogged by city police and parking enforcement, pushed from place to place with the threat of an impound always hanging over them.

Thompson said the RV residents he knows generally don’t consider themselves homeless — but their stability is often fragile. So even as officials pour funding and energy into decreasing the number of unsheltered individuals, he said, they’re putting more people onto the streets by confiscating vehicles that are doubling as homes.

“They’re not helping the homeless problem,” Thompson said of city leaders. “They’re creating it.”

A small city impound lot at 500 South near Redwood Road in November had 20 RVs lined up, leaving little space for other vehicles. And tow yards across the valley are full of them as well, said Stephen Marrs, the dispatcher with Stauffer’s Towing, which contracts with governments including Salt Lake City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) RVs parked in the Salt Lake City impound lot on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

“Nobody comes and picks them up,” he said. “The sad part is you have someone’s whole entire life in those motor homes.”

To get a small motor home out of a tow yard costs $280, For a bigger one, it is $347 — and that’s before the $60 daily storage fee. For many living on the streets, that is out of reach.

Wendy Garvin, an advocate for those experiencing homelessness, said people can lose all their clothes and other possessions to an impound. One man, she said, was keeping his father’s ashes in his RV when it was hauled away. He never got them back.

“Nobody has much out there,” she said. “They have a few little things, and they lose basically everything.”

Marrs said the impound lots take it a case at a time and sometimes will negotiate smaller fees or let people take some possessions, while leaving the vehicle behind.

He said tow lots don’t want abandoned RVs. Their crews have to clean them out and then junk them at a cost of about $2,000 for each vehicle.

Garvin said some of the people who end up in an RV were recently forced out of their homes but expect to get another apartment soon. Others had been camping on the streets before they managed to scrape together enough money to buy an old RV, a move that can be a major step for people struggling to get out of homelessness.

A camper with a locking door offers people overnight security, a safe place to keep their possessions when they’re away, and protection from the rain and wind, Garvin said. Often, she added, people who live in these campers will offer their unsheltered friends a place to stay when the weather is bad.

“But the city impound lot is full of old, dead RVs,” she said. “Every single one of those represents a home for somebody.”

That’s why the city pilot project is aimed at avoiding the tow to begin with, said Johnston.

“If there is a way for us to help keep them operable so they can move within that 48-hour time frame,” he said, “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Offering help

Typically, the city’s parking enforcement takes action when residents complain, and there’s mounting pressure to do something.

Garvin doesn’t dismiss some of the community frustrations, such as the trash and debris in the streets around RVs. But she said many of the safety concerns seem to stem from a perspective that these vehicle residents are dangerous. In her experience, though, RV residents generally keep to themselves and don’t trouble their neighbors.

The city could assist these residents by offering them vouchers to RV campgrounds, Garvin said. But many of these facilities don’t accept the aging vehicles often owned by people on the brink of homelessness, The KOA closest to Salt Lake City, for example, won’t allow an RV older than 15 years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lee Littleford lives in his van, moving from spot to spot in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Littleford is known for delivering food to others in the community experiencing homelessness.

Garvin’s group, Unsheltered Utah, helps out this community by delivering grocery and clothing donations, and providing propane and gasoline to help people warm their homes and run their generators. She tries to keep up with the residents, too, a task made more difficult after a city crackdown.

“When people get moved by police, they scatter everywhere for a few days, and then they slowly start to come back together in some sort of camp,” she said. “We can’t always find them.”

Municipal RV restrictions have spawned lawsuits in other parts of the country, including one ongoing case against a city in Washington state that bars campers from parking for more than four hours on its streets.

Advocates for civil liberties and disability rights have called the city of Lacey’s rule unconstitutional and part of a growing number of laws that penalize vulnerable people for living in their vehicles.

“Americans experiencing homelessness deserve protection of their rights and dignity,” advocates wrote in a brief filed with the lawsuit, “not punishment for using their best or only available option for shelter.”

‘A better approach’

It starts with just one RV.

Then another pulls up. And another and another.

Thompson said RV residents tend to congregate because, as they’re scouting out new parking spots, they assume it’s safe to stop along a street already lined with other campers.

Rose Park resident Kent Mayberry said about five or six of the vehicles have been parked down the street from his home for more than a month. Judging by the generator outside one of the campers, he said, some of the RV inhabitants are hunkering down for a while.

“With the pandemic, I know people lost their jobs,” he said. “And people can’t afford $2,000 or $3,000 for rent on an apartment. So they have no other option.”

But Mayberry said he’s concerned about the welfare of the RV residents. He wonders if all of them have bathrooms and, especially as winter approaches, if all of the campers are heated.

He also worries about the continued proliferation of RVs and about his community’s sense of safety.

Nigel Swaby, Fairpark Community Council chair, said he found a pile of garbage and a stray bathtub scattered along the line of RVs in Mayberry’s neighborhood when he visited a few weeks ago. Swaby reported it on the city’s mobile app but said nothing much happened.

City officials, parking enforcement and the police haven’t really offered up solutions for the neighborhood, Mayberry said, and he hasn’t spoken to any of the camper residents because he doesn’t want to create hostile living conditions.

“I’m not beating on these people about being homeless,” he said. “They’re down on their luck. And I think the city needs to take a better approach.”

Swaby, who recently ran unsuccessfully for City Council, said the city needs to amp up its 48-hour parking enforcement and clear the RVs from neighborhood streets. Residents are complaining about trash dumped near the campers, he said, and have even reported a few fires.

“We can’t ignore the ordinances that we have on the books. We have to continue because that’s what people know as to what’s right and wrong,” he said. “If you let them get away with the most basic of things, they’re going to take more and more and more.”

During his campaign, Swaby pitched the idea of opening up church parking lots to the RVs to take the vehicles off the streets and prevent large groups from forming. It might be easier, he said, to connect these residents with social services that way.

He also believes his proposal would “separate out the criminal element,” since people engaging in illegal activities would likely avoid the type of oversight they would get if they were staying outside of a church.

Lane, who lives in a big beige motor home, has labored for years as a landscaper, but he currently doesn’t work, largely because he’s afraid he’ll lose everything.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Lane lives in his RV, moving from spot to spot in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

“I just want to know that this is safe, and my animals,” he said. “I don’t want to come home, and it is towed.”

He wants something more permanent than Swaby is suggesting. He argues the government should buy a lot, offer sewer hookups and trash removal, and charge people $250 or $300 a month to park there. He sees that as a solution, far more than the city’s pilot project, though he wouldn’t mind help with his broken transmission.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall is against creating a permanent place to camp RVs or to pitch a tent. She sees it as an ineffective way to help people find a permanent home. The city has also ramped up enforcement of camping ordinances and has consistently pushed people with RVs to move on.

The current predicament will likely remain, and it is one that is frustrating for city residents and for those who sleep in their vehicles.

“As long as this [motor home] drives and goes, then I can have it on the streets,” Lane said. “I know the law is no camping, but where are we supposed to go?”

Thompson is trying to organize a protest against the parking enforcement. He imagines a caravan of RVs and campers that would run from City Hall to the Utah Capitol.

In a Facebook post announcing his plan, he implored others to join him.

“We are sick and tired of trying to get on our feet, just so the city can kick us back down.”