SALT LAKE CITY — Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is sounding off over concerns about Utahns experiencing homelessness freezing in the cold, saying “mentally ill” people who refuse help are falling through the cracks.
“In short, there’s an enormous, deadly Catch-22 crack in the system through which mentally ill people freezing to death are falling,” Anderson wrote in a letter he mailed to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski this week.
“It is the responsibility of our elected officials and employees whose jobs entail providing mental health services to mentally ill homeless people to provide a solution to this dilemma,” Anderson wrote.
He says leaders aren’t doing enough to equip police officers or other emergency responders with the right tools to determine when people who refuse services and insist on staying out in the cold in subfreezing overnight temperatures “pose an imminent danger to themselves” and should therefore be brought indoors and connected with mental health services.
“Among the stock questions in assessing mental health should be, ‘Do you intend to stay out in subfreezing cold tonight, putting your life in danger,’” Anderson wrote. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ action should be taken to get that person, securely, to a warm place where he/she can be treated for mental illness.”
It’s a question of freedom balanced with protection, Anderson told the Deseret News Friday, acknowledging that people have the constitutional freedom to stay outside if they wish. But the former mayor also said too many people are sleeping on the streets who should be receiving mental health treatment.
To Anderson, if someone refuses services and insist on staying outside in below-freezing weather, “it’s a given they’re at imminent risk of harm to themselves.”
“Our streets are full of untreated and perhaps undiagnosed people with mental illness,” he said.
Anderson’s letter — mailed to Biskupski and Wilson’s offices, as well as to dozens of city, state and county officials, advocates for the homeless and to media — was dismissed by Wilson, who defended multijurisdictional efforts to connect people experiencing homelessness with help.
“Former Mayor Anderson is misinformed,” Wilson said. “There is a broad-based coalition connecting those experiencing homelessness with the resources they need. Political leaders, community partners and skilled professionals have worked tirelessly toward solutions. As a coalition, we appreciate constructive input from the community on how to better address these issues.”
Biskupski’s spokesman said as of Friday, the mayor’s office had not received Anderson’s letter and declined to comment.
Anderson in his letter detailed his experience trying to help a homeless man who he said sat in a wheelchair overnight in 28-degree weather across the street from the Salt Lake City-County Building, wearing only one sock. Anderson credited a Salt Lake police officer who “always demonstrates compassion and reason” but had expressed his “hands were tied, citing the Fourth Amendment,” Anderson wrote.
“I asserted that his hands were not tied because if someone is mentally ill and, as a result of his/her mental illness, he/she poses an imminent risk of harm to him/herself, they could be taken to a mental health facility for treatment,” Anderson wrote.
When Anderson said he returned about an hour later, the man will still there in the freezing cold, but he was “surprised and pleased” to see the officer was still there, “waiting to see if the cold would finally persuade” him to allow the officer to take him to a homeless resource center.
Anderson said the officer “went far beyond the call of duty,” but the man “continued to refuse to go to the resource center, angrily describing them as ‘dungeons’ and saying he’d prefer to stay out in the cold.”
As state and city leaders have worked to transform Utah’s homeless system — a monumental shift capped off last month with the closure of the downtown homeless shelter and the opening of three new resource centers — officials have said some people have refused to accept services, some of which may be “shelter-resistant” because of mental illness.
After the controversial Operation Rio Grande more than two years ago mostly dispersed on-street camping in the neighborhood surrounding the Road Home’s downtown shelter, Library Square across from the Salt Lake City-County Building has become the new but more scaled-down hotbed for drugs and on-street camping in the city.
Police and outreach workers regularly visit the area to disperse campers and offer services, but campers return regularly. Some express frustrations with obtaining beds in the resource centers, which have most days reached capacity, though bed availability refreshes on a nightly basis and homeless providers offer a variety of overflow options, including motel vouchers.
The debate around on-street camping boils down to individual freedom. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah say policymakers must carefully weigh constitutional implications of any ordinances or policies aimed at forcing people experiencing homeless from the streets.
“Civil liberties and the Constitution apply to everyone regardless of housing status,” said Jason Groth, smart justice coordinator at the ACLU of Utah. “We cannot undermine a person’s civil rights because of housing insecurity.”
But to Anderson, there’s more police or others should do if a person is determined to stay outside in potentially life-threatening weather.
“Please respond with specifics and a plan of action,” Anderson wrote to the mayors, calling for “no more political excuses or recitation of the problems.”
“Lives are on the line every day,” he wrote.
Correction: In an earlier version, a statement issued by the ACLU of Utah misspelled Jason Groth’s last name as Goth.