A major backer of Mendenhall’s chief political rival is suing SLC over homeless camps

David Ibarra, the entrepreneur who is backing former Mayor Rocky Anderson’s campaign, insists there was no political motivation behind the lawsuit.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A no camping sign as the site of a future legal homeless camp is announced in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.

In the midst of a contentious mayoral race that has often focused on the plight of homelessness, several Salt Lake City residents and business owners are suing the city over what they say are both public and private nuisances caused by “allowing homeless encampments to proliferate.”

One of the plaintiffs, entrepreneur and former mayoral candidate David Ibarra, is one of the most prominent supporters of former Mayor Rocky Anderson’s quest to oust first-term Mayor Erin Mendenhall from office in November’s election.

He insists there was no political motivation behind the lawsuit, which was filed 54 days before the election.

The complaint against the city details instances of vandalism, theft and violence, and says that the police response to these incidents is “always inadequate.” The plaintiffs are asking that a court force the city to take action and that the city pay their attorneys’ fees.

“Although this is a nuisance case, it is also a plea for sanity and common sense, and a plea to address the humanitarian crisis that the City’s intentional actions (and inactions) have caused and continue to cause,” the complaint reads.

Lawyers included images of damaged property, human waste, trash, tents, and drug use and paraphernalia that were allegedly taken outside of the plaintiffs’ homes and businesses in the filing. They also wrapped in maps of homeless-related incidents that the city has posted online.

Phoenix-based attorney Stephen Tully said his clients have faced great harm due to a “sort of lawless situation” being allowed in Salt Lake City.

“It’s caused them to be essentially prisoners within their own properties,” he said. “They have sought for many years relief from the city, and the city seems to be of the opinion that it has no ability to rectify the problem. That is, we believe, a legal error.”

Andrew Wittenberg, spokesperson for Mayor Erin Mendenhall, said in a statement that the lawsuit “oversimplifies the intricate legal and practical considerations” of a complex issue.

“We look forward to responding to the specific claims through the legal process,” he said. “Fundamentally, we disagree that the response to this complicated issue should be taken out of the hands of elected officials and policy experts.”

Ibarra says ‘absolutely no political motivation’

Ibarra was one of Mendenhall’s opponents — and later endorsed her — when she ran for office in 2019. He has since soured on the mayor, becoming a vocal critic of her homelessness response.

He has donated the maximum amount for an individual to Anderson’s campaign and reached the contribution limit through multiple businesses.

In an op-ed published in The Salt Lake Tribune in May, in which he opposed Mendenhall’s reelection, Ibarra wrote, “She doesn’t even acknowledge [homelessness] as a city problem anymore, let alone advance problem-solving solutions.”

He and another Anderson supporter, prolific developer Kem Gardner, bankrolled SaveSLC.org, a campaign criticizing the response to homelessness in Utah’s capital.

Reached by phone Friday, Ibarra said there was “absolutely no political motivation” behind the lawsuit, and that the complaint was not his idea. Instead, he said, it came about from other business owners after a similar legal challenge in Phoenix was successful.

He agreed to participate because he “felt it was the last resort that we had as folks that live here, work here, and for the individuals that are experiencing the absolutely worst crisis of their lives living in the street.”

Anderson, meanwhile, said he discussed the lawsuit with Ibarra before it was filed but was not involved in any coordination of the complaint or its timing.

The former mayor said he would have preferred to lawsuit to come at a different time, and if he’d had anything to do with it, he would have demanded the city provide a place for unsheltered Utahns to go and be taken care of if they were forced from their encampments.

“He (Ibarra) mostly keeps me in the dark about what he does,” Anderson said, “because he wants to make it clear that none of this is being done for political purposes.”

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, understands the frustration with homeless camps but said criminalizing camping doesn’t make people disappear, it makes them hide.

“Clearly, we need to get more housing available as soon as possible so that the people who were priced out of the rental market have a place to live,” he said. “I am completely in agreement with that. I think going back to making people hide behind dumpsters doesn’t actually help with that.”

Tibbitts said the lawsuit’s assertion that 600 beds were available and unoccupied in emergency shelters and various types of housing is not reflective of reality when there was a push to get unhoused Utahns to First United Methodist Church downtown over the winter because there weren’t enough beds available.

Wittenberg, the mayor’s spokesperson, said issues surrounding homelessness require collaboration and commitment at all levels of government, and Salt Lake City has done its part in a partnership with county and state leaders.

The ability to get more people inside depends on the statewide effort to add shelter beds to a system that has been operating at or above capacity since the closure of a centralized shelter downtown in 2019.

Getting people into substance and behavioral health treatment, he said, depends on a mental health system that is overseen at the county, state and federal levels. And jailing people, Wittenberg said, depends on state code, “judicial discretion, and capacity at the county jail.”

“Salt Lake City is firmly committed to doing our part to address the national humanitarian crisis of homelessness,” he said. “We will never stop striving to be a leader in the state for our investment in affordable and permanent supportive housing, our homeless outreach efforts, or in the work we do to make our community safer.”

Mendenhall has said the city does enforce a no-camping ordinance but only as a last resort for those who are unwilling to engage with officers or move their belongings.