SALT LAKE CITY — A protest Thursday on Washington Square by a group of homeless people to bring public attention to what they call the city's overly strict camping ordinance has brought some results from the police chief.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said he has suspended enforcement of city codes pertaining to camping in public parks until a review is completed.
"Concerns expressed in media reports are valid, and I've started a review of past citations to determine whether they were appropriate and how to proceed in the future in order to ensure that all members of our community are treated with the dignity they deserve," he said.
The "nap-in" was an act of civil disobedience by about a dozen homeless people in the area who said they are being denied the only place they have to sleep — the ground — because of the city's camping regulations and because the city's main overflow emergency shelter has closed for the season.
They said that police, and to a larger degree the public, are harassing them and ticketing them for violating the city's camping ordinance that prohibits any kind of sleeping equipment or bedding in city parks, particularly during off hours.
Homeless advocate and protest organizer, Bill Tibbitts, said the code is far more restrictive than people believe.
"You can be cited for camping just by stopping at a park and sitting down on your backpack to rest — during the day," Tibbitts said. A person who is asked by a police officer or a citizen has five minutes to vacate the area.
Burbank said Thursday in response to the protest that contrary to what the group claimed, "we have not issued a ticket or made a single arrest in the last year based on camping."
On Friday, he clarified his statement, saying, "There are several codes under which officers may enforce against sleeping or camping in public parks and spaces, and yesterday we reviewed only one of them." After checking for citations under the city's other loitering and trespassing codes, he said records actually show "multiple citations."
Burbank has been actively working with civic leaders and social services agencies to find workable and permanent alternatives to homelessness such as the public/private Housing First project.
About a dozen protesters said Thursday that police officers are usually reasonable and try to be understanding, but they believe homeless people are being lumped in with street corner panhandlers or are being stereotyped as alcoholics and troublemakers.
"You reach a point every day when you have to stop moving," Rachel Wellner, 50, who has been homeless in Salt Lake City since December, said Thursday. "Because we don't have anyone or anything but what we can carry, and have to find somewhere to lie down, we become criminals and are treated like it sometimes."