For decades, we have been involved in mitigating illegal homeless camps throughout Salt Lake City and County. We have seen firsthand the tragic human consequences as well as the environmental impacts to our waterways, parks and places where people live, work and play. 

These experiences have left searing images in our minds. Each time we had to close one of these camps because of health conditions, we hoped it would be the last, that policymakers, providers and committed volunteers could find better solutions.

Let us take you inside a camp abatement that occurred this fall on Victory Road. It is a popular hiking area on the north end of Salt Lake with scenic views of the valley and is owned by Salt Lake City. Through a GRAMA request, details of that mitigation were released to the public. 

The camp was home to about 30 people. Like other encampments there was illicit drug use, open fires for cooking, human waste, litter, garbage and environmental impacts.

City and county workers spent three days cleaning the site. They removed 82 tons of refuse in 25 dump trucks. Among the items were hundreds of used needles, 20 propane tanks and other flammables, rotten food, solid and hazardous waste. Also removed were tents — some soiled — tarps and soiled clothing. A trench filled with human waste was found on the hillside. 

These efforts involved an array of agencies and personnel including the Salt Lake County Health Department, Salt Lake City Police Department, SLC Streets, the city’s Rapid Intervention Team, the Community Health Access Team, and the Salt Lake City Fire Department in addition to Advantage Services, a non-profit organization which specializes in this type of work. Social workers were onsite weeks before the abatement offering shelter options. From our previous experiences, the cost of this cleanup could have easily been between $100,000 and $200,000. 

It was the 14th time in the past 10 years a homeless encampment was removed on Victory Road. How many more times will the city be asked to return and clean up this same site? And at what cost? Has anyone calculated the tens of thousands of donations given generously by volunteers, faith groups, non-profits and homeless advocates that end up in our landfill, triggering cycle after cycle of humanitarian relief and destruction? Within weeks of this abatement, a new homeless colony was spotted on Victory Road.

But there is another tragic aspect the public rarely knows about. These camps are places where people have died. During the week of the Victory Road abatement, three homeless individuals were found dead in or near city encampments. Deaths among our unsheltered population are rarely publicly reported. Many are associated with drug overdoses. Data collected during the 2023 PIT Count showed that half of the unsheltered homeless acknowledged they use illegal drugs. 

Week after week, we’ve wondered why those who advocate for unorganized encampments could possibly argue that this is humane. Allowing people to live without clean water, human and solid waste control, refrigerated food, reliable housing and utilities is not an act of civility, rather a consequence of poor governance. If housing advocates insist that housing is healthcare, then we have a moral obligation to measure the outcomes of housing the way we measure the outcomes of other kinds of healthcare — at the very minimum counting premature deaths.

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While we applaud Salt Lake and Utah leaders plan to open the first sanctioned camp with sanitation services this fall as a promising step forward, this is just the first of many initiatives needed to bring about real progress toward solving our homelessness crisis. A key question that must be answered is whether or not the camp will be adequately supervised and protected with public safety patrols.

Additionally, why isn’t the public informed about the environmental impact homeless camps are having along the Jordan River — including fecal counts, the amount of camp debris in the river, harmful effects on fish and wildlife and public safety? Or in our public parks?

Gov. Spencer Cox made a bold statement at his September monthly press conference: “I refuse to let Salt Lake City turn into San Francisco or Portland. We will not allow that to happen in our capital city.” Securing a safer future for Utah’s capital city will require policymakers to create clear standards currently missing from state law, that set accountability, reporting and tracking mechanisms for all those who operate within the state’s vast homeless matrix. 

Dale Keller was Bureau Manager for the Salt Lake County’s Health Department’s Environmental Health Division before retiring in March 2023. He has had a career in public health for 32 years. Rich Lewis was a Captain in the Salt Lake City Police Department before retiring in 2022. During his police career, which spanned more than three decades, he also supervised nearly a half dozen divisions.

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