Editorial: Salt Lake City’s new legal homeless camp is a small step but, for some, there is finally some room at the inn

State and city move toward making homelessness ‘rare, brief, and non-recurring.’

It was later than planned, but still appropriate, that Salt Lake City’s new legal homeless camp opened for its first residents just a few days before Christmas.

For a few people, at least, there was finally some room at the inn.

The new collection of 25 small, portable structures — each with a separate, secure, heated space for two people — is a big step toward really dealing with the many-layered problem of homelessness in Utah’s capital city.

It is happening because various groups that didn’t always agree on what to do, or who should do it, have come together in ways that are long overdue.

The village of individual shelters — officially a “temporary microshelter community” — is a state project, set up on land owned by the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency at 600 West and 300 South.

The city is helping to bear the cost. A nonprofit organization with experience in helping human beings first survive, and then move away from, homelessness is running the show.

Private philanthropy is ready to kick in more funds for this project and other services for the long-term homeless now that they see progress in providing not only shelter, but also support services that include mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The camp, along with other new shelter spaces that have been set up for the winter months, has been accompanied by a new resolve among state and local leaders that the ugly, unsanitary and illegal makeshift campsites that keep springing up in various places around the community will not be allowed to remain.

That has been a hard decision, for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and others, as police action to clear out illegal campsites was often seen as a cruel act perpetrated on the most defenseless of people, people who had nowhere else to go and often saw what little they had in the way of personal possessions swept away.

But, as has become the position of Gov. Spencer Cox and others, just leaving the camps on the streets not only damaged neighboring homes and businesses, it really wasn’t a kindness for the homeless. Illegal, unsupervised, unserved campsites did nothing to move the homeless toward real housing or any of the other services they needed.

The illegal camps could energize public opinion in contradictory ways. Seeing them could move people to have sympathy for the homeless — but no concerted action — or to fear and despise them as a danger to the community.

Switchpoint, the service provider that is running the new campsite, wasn’t interested in taking on the project until its managers were assured that moving the camp’s residents to more permanent housing was to be part of the operation.

More permanent housing that needs still to be created, and is just as necessary to the long-term solution of the issue than are the microshelters.

The new camp should encourage many of those now living on the streets, in parks or along the Jordan River — many of whom were repelled by the idea of living in the three new “homeless service centers” they saw as unsafe — to take up this offered shelter.

Once there, residents will have their actions and needs closely supervised by Switchpoint caseworkers. They will check on them hourly, refer them to whatever services they need, screen out drugs and alcohol, all while providing a safe place for people, possessions, even the pets that can be a homeless person’s only friend.

This kind of, for lack of a better word, policing will be necessary here and at other facilities for the homeless. Policing where the goal is not jail or other punishment — though that may happen when crimes are committed — but protection and improvement.

Lacking such active supervision has been the cause of the off-putting squalor seen at the illegal campsites and the understandable reluctance of cities and neighborhoods to welcome even government-run facilities.

Providing it adds significantly to the cost of services that might actually move toward the goal, as articulated by state Homelessness Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, “to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

The creation of the legal camp and other winter shelter, and the more active enforcement of the camping ban, has shaken loose more help from the private sector.

An organization called the Utah Impact Partnership recently put up $15 million toward services and housing. Contributors include Ivory Homes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intermountain Health and the Larry H. Miller family.

The location of the camp is temporary. It is scheduled to move to another, as yet unannounced, state-selected location come spring.

The resolve and cooperation that led to it must continue.