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More homeless people are choosing to camp along downtown streets

SALT LAKE CITY — Volunteers of America Utah and other human services organizations have noticed an increasing amount of homeless camping on city streets, but after Wednesday, they're no closer to finding out why.

"We don't have exact numbers, but qualitatively, we have seen so many more people taking up permanent residency camping along the street instead of going to the shelter or seeking services," said DeAnn Zebelean, local Volunteers of America spokeswoman.

The rise in street-side camping may be due to the good weather, Zebelean said, or there could be an underlying issue within the homelessness care system.

Volunteers of America employees took to the streets with the highest density of homeless campers, armed with surveys designed to gain more information about the issue at hand.

Unfortunately, they were unable to conduct enough surveys to create statistical significance because of an unexpected interference.

Police were collecting shopping carts and barrels filled with items collected by homeless people, and responding to health concerns along 500 West.

As more police arrived and gathered materials, homeless campers became scared to answer any more survey questions and made themselves scarce.

"We were going to cover more, but because the police came out today, we just don't have enough time," Zebelean said. "We just want to make sure that they know it is against the law to camp here."

Volunteers of America employees also wanted to make sure the campers had somewhere to go if they were asked to leave.

It was a unique outing for Volunteers of America employees, who normally spend their days locating homeless people, helping to stabilize them and assisting them with available services.

Kathy Bray, Volunteers of America Utah president and CEO, said the effort can be described as an adjustment of strategy in the outreach program as a response to what is currently happening in the community.

"We give them something they need, and then you can establish the trusting relationship over time and then help that person ultimately move out of homelessness," Bray said.

But gaining the trust of homeless individuals is difficult because many of them have lost hope, said Steve G., a homeless man and master meat-cutter who hopes to re-enter the industry when he recovers from knee surgery and is able to stand for a complete shift.

"My situation is mine," he said. "I'm the only one who put me in it … and I'm the only one who can get me out."

Steve recently has been sleeping under a tree after being dismissed from a downtown homeless shelter about a week ago.

"I am in a 30-day exit for smoking in the bathroom," he said. "I broke the rule."

Steve said he's not bitter about being temporarily banned from the shelter, but he won't seek shelter at a different facility either. He's heard rumors of it being "bug-infested," and he also trusts the five people he has slept under the tree with more than other street occupants.

But he's never been formally introduced to his tree companions.

"We've always have had adults camping in the 20 years I've been involved," said Pamela Atkinson, a longtime advocate for homeless people. Some people believe camping is safer than staying downtown, she said.

Other motivations behind camping include not wanting to give up alcohol, Atkinson said.

Areas where homeless people can find shelter outdoors is decreasing as more industrial buildings are built near service organizations.

Camping on the streets or squatting in empty buildings has also been popular with homeless youths because they are intimidated by occupants of shelters, Atkinson said.

"They don't know those other adults in the shelter," she said.

Email: chansen@deseretnews.com

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