Does cleaning up, closing homeless camps do any good when new camps just pop up elsewhere?
The longtime practice has recently come under fire, spurring formation of new advocacy groups and prompting changes
Kelsey Wright moves methodically around a campsite she’s called home for more than two months trying to decide what is worth saving and what will be snatched up in the jaws of an approaching backhoe.
“Devastating,” she said as she tosses two backpacks onto an already overloaded baby stroller. “It’s everything we’ve tried to put together to at least make some kind of livelihood for ourselves. And now it’s just gone.”
Wright and her boyfriend, who goes by Sasquatch, woke up on Feb. 4 to the sound of heavy equipment and county officials asking them to vacate the camp they’d set up with several other couples next to a set of dead railroad tracks a stone’s throw from FrontRunner tracks.
They were among nearly 180 people who had made a tent city dubbed “Camp Last Hope” their home since early December.
The camp was never a permanent solution to an enduring dilemma: How should government officials deal with homeless encampments erected on public or private property in a way that respects all involved?
In recent months, the conflict between camp residents and business owners has prompted government officials to explain, engage and rethink an increasingly visible and divisive topic. It’s also placed attention on why some people on the street believe the shelter system and support it provides isn’t for them.
The lightning rod of these debates is an old practice with new critics — the Salt Lake County Health Department’s decision to regularly clean up camps when they grow too big, too dangerous or become entrenched in an area through an abatement strategy that requires people to leave, often abandoning property they’ve accumulated, including clothing, sleeping bags, tents, mattresses and caches of food.
Sale Lake City spends about $15 million on programs that address issues leading to or associated with homelessness. Mayor Erin Mendenhall said that in the city “we don’t just abate camps. There are weeks of enhanced service and focused outreach that endeavors to specifically connect individuals with the services they need.”
The man who oversees the abatements says the good accomplished by such cleanups is not solving underlying homeless issues — it’s simply addressing health and safety concerns.
“I just don’t know of any good one answer,” said Dale Keller, the manager of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s Environmental Health Bureau. “And so I think being very surgical in the approach for different populations is really important. I can absolutely tell you that we get, at the health department, what a stunningly low bar it is to abate and remove people from a fatigued area.”
He points to a camp the department cleaned up on the Jordan River Parkway that was contributing to garbage and trash that had become an issue for neighbors, as well as for the fragile wildlife environment.
“We attempted to get every one of those individuals, including a young lady who was seven or eight months pregnant, into resource facilities or to talk with social workers. Not one of them was interested in doing that,” he said. “They were very gracious, and they took their camp, and they moved. ... I guarantee they just moved to another location on the Jordan River.”
He said the area suffered “environmental fatigue at just a stunning level, not to mention difficulties for the neighbors, and that’s addressed. But what have you done? You’ve caused another problem at another location.”
Keller’s point is illustrated by an incident on Feb. 9. A small group of people left Camp Last Hope when its closure was announced. They took refuge under a freeway overpass a couple of miles to the north.
On Tuesday morning, Ty Bellamy, founder of Black Lives for Humanity and one of those who founded Camp Last Hope, got a frantic call from a resident saying Utah Highway Patrol troopers were telling them they had to move or they’d be arrested.
“They came by yesterday morning and shook everybody’s tents,” said Shawna Gardner, 47. “They said we had to be gone within 24 hours. But there were no notices and signs, and we had an officer out here not too long ago on a domestic dispute, and they said as long as we kept our camp small and cleaned up, we’re welcome to stay here.”
She said she was in the middle of getting dressed when an officer opened her tent door and told her she needed to leave. Residents were angry because they feel like they can’t trust the information they’re given, and this situation, like many, devolves into a confrontation with law enforcement.
Critics of the camp cleanups say it unnecessarily terrorizes already vulnerable people, forcing them to move, sometimes on short notice, and without knowing where they will go next.
But proponents of the cleanups say there are serious health and safety concerns, not just to those living there, but for nearby residents and property owners, and the shelters provide temporary places to go with services, if those services will be accepted.
Keller is waiting on final numbers, but he estimates the department cleared about 300 tons of trash from Camp Last Hope — and that was an abatement that had a level of cooperation and coordination that many do not have.
Protesters target cleanups
In recent months, protesters have begun targeting each cleanup and closure operation. Such protests often make the process more complicated and combative for Salt Lake County staff, volunteers and unsheltered people.
Keller said these cleanups have gotten more attention in the past couple of years from the public, but last spring activists began focusing on them in earnest.
“In the past, we’d never have thought of having police close down streets,” Keller said. “The only concerns would have been if our unsheltered friends were OK. We might have one or two officers for the whole cleanup.”
But some protests became so heated that Keller said he had to ask police to close the perimeter around camps to keep his employees and volunteers safe.
In fact, the cleanups have sparked so much outrage in the past few months it’s given rise to a handful of grassroots groups — mostly organized through social media — whose members attempt to stop or modify when and how the camps are dismantled. This has, at times, put them at odds with more traditional service providers and homeless advocates as the goals of each group may vary from leaving campers alone to getting as many people as possible off the street and into programs or shelters.
“Our goal is to get them permanently housed,” said Bellamy, who formed Black Lives for Humanity last summer, although she said her work with unsheltered people began by helping her father, who was an advocate. “He raised me to do this. I’ve done this all my life. ... This is in my DNA. I grew up understanding that servitude is the attitude.”
Another activist, Darin Mann, was so disturbed by the cleanups, he teamed up with another newly formed advocacy group, Nomad Alliance, to bring people to the yard of his Salt Lake home. He touted it as a unique but temporary solution, which came under intense scrutiny with neighbor complaints and city and county officials acknowledging there are ordinances that forbid long-term camping in residential yards.
With the death of a 45-year-old woman on Sunday, Mann stepped up his efforts to raise money for a tiny home community. City officials have engaged in talks with Mann to try and relocate those living in his yard, as even he has recognized its flaws.
“I can only do it so much with my own private property, with my own private funds and donations from the community,” he said. “It’s become clear that I was a bit naive and optimistic. But now the solution has to be so much so much quicker.”
Seeking solutions in the situation
While advocacy organizations like Volunteers of America, which is 125 years old, have long been part of an official strategy to combat homelessness and the issues that cause it, groups like Bellamy’s and people like Mann have increasingly become part of official conversations. In the case of Camp Last Hope, Bellamy was intimately involved in talks with city officials as they discussed the camp’s purpose and its fate.
The partnership substantially changed the experience of everyone involved in the closure of that camp. Those who owned the property where the camp was erected asked city and county officials for help months ago.
“In December, when Union Pacific first learned about the camp, they sent their very small police squad through here, and they tried to tell people to leave,” said Michelle Hoon, who oversees the city’s Homeless Response Team. “Understanding this is a big camp and more of an organized thing, we reached out to Union Pacific to talk through what our winter plan was and wait for more possibilities for shelters to open up for people.”
Property owners backed off asking campers to move, and Bellamy worked with city officials to address some of the issues these camps always have, including portable toilets. When it was clear the camp would have to close, city officials provided a three-day resource fair — at the camp itself — that aimed to help residents find resources, shelter beds, jobs, food, and even deal with criminal issues.
“Everybody wanted to see a good solution,” Hoon said last week as dozens of residents lined up for help with criminal warrants handled by a justice court judge in a van. “And this is as good a solution that you can manage in a situation like this.”
That’s not to say there weren’t issues. Despite warnings that the camp was closing at 5 p.m. on Feb. 4, and the efforts of about a half-dozen community and advocacy groups, Wright and Sasquatch didn’t leave until they were forced to go. As the cleanup began, they and about 30 others scrambled to pack what they could carry, and in most cases, without knowing where they would go.
“More or less, just necessity,” she said of how she tries to prioritize her possessions. “The warmth, food and stuff like that.”
Why live in tents?
Wright bends to pick up a blanket and a hastily folded tarp, and then she just takes a second to survey what’s now strewn across the ground. Wright has been “off and on homeless for many a year, but this time for about a year.”
She has no idea where those with whom she’s shared a campsite with have gone. Arms loaded, she turns and walks toward the growing pile of belongings near two strollers she’s tied together with twine.
But it isn’t the things she will have to leave behind, odds and ends that maybe earned her a few dollars or made her life a bit more comfortable that make constantly moving so painful. It’s the constant shredding of a tenuous patchwork of support, a semblance of family that she has to constantly stitch together that she mourns. It is difficult to find real connections when she says has no place to grow roots.
“It’s really hard when you know everybody,” Wright said, pausing as the backhoe scoops up half of the maze of tents where a woman named Misha lived with her dog and boyfriend just the day before. “And you don’t know where anybody ends up at the end of the day.”
A couple of volunteers offer to help them push and pull the load they are struggling to move alongside the muddy tracks. One woman asks where they are going.
She heaves a bike onto one shoulder and two bags onto the other.
“I don’t have the slightest idea.”
The reasons people live on the street rather that seek refuge in a shelter are complex and as varied as the people explaining their choices. Sometimes it’s the ability to live with a friend or partner, other times it’s keeping a pet. A few admit to addictions that they’re not ready to address, and others say they suffered trauma in a shelter and don’t feel safe in that environment.
Common sentiments emerge, however. First, all of them say they’d rather have a physical home than live in a tent. Over the past several months, the Deseret News talked with unsheltered people living on the street, in cars and in shelters, and they consistently say they do not want to be homeless.
Second, most of them say the shelters are full or too dangerous, and by “unsafe” they mean theft, assault, bullying and fear of getting COVID-19.
The reality is the shelters almost always have beds available, although how people access beds, and other services like medical treatment, addiction resources or employment opportunities, can be complicated if people are unwilling to engage with or trust the dozens of service providers who offer help to those living without shelter.
“It’s a complicated answer (about whether there are available beds), and the answer can be both yes and no on the same day,” Hoon said on a Facebook Live event that city officials hosted four days before the shutdown of Camp Last Hope.
“Shelter bed utilization is actually pretty similar to ICU utilization, which is interesting, in that counts aren’t always static. People are going to leave; new people are going to come in. So there is actually an effectively full rate at the shelters that is actually lower than 100%.”
She continued, “We have case managed beds, referral beds and night-by-night beds, and all of those offer differing degrees of long-term stability at intake.”
What that means to those living in camps scattered around Salt Lake County is “that there’s probably never going to be a time where we can pick up one entire camp and move everybody into a shelter in one day. Even if we did try to do that, the likelihood that all of those people would want to do that is kind of slim,” Hoon said.
But she believes that “by better understanding what bed turnover looks like, and having lots of different kinds of options available for people, we can chip away at some of our larger encampments and we can completely resolve some of the smaller ones, often just through services alone.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the one thing she hopes people don’t do is characterize those experiencing homelessness as “the problem” or “an issue.”
“The problems exist at a systemic level, and it has to do with certainly access to affordable housing, but it’s also about health care, mental health access, substance abuse services, and many other far-reaching systems that come into play on individuals and families,” she said.
“The issue of homelessness and the pathways out of it are incredibly complex and individual. There is not a single solution to the statewide issue. If there were, it would have happened already,” she said
Being moved to action
Dick Rueckert aged out of the foster care system and into a life on the streets. It was never what he wanted, but he’s hovered between living in poverty and surviving on the streets ever since.
“I did my own thing, and I tried to stay alive,” said the 31-year-old, who is volunteering with a newly formed group of volunteers called Nomad Alliance on a warm, sunny Sunday morning. “I’d always been interested in (emergency medicine), even as a kid. I was always the one cleaning up the wounds of my siblings, and when I lived down on the block, I saw everything that was going on.”
He was living in the old Rio Grande shelter when he signed up for classes at Stevens-Henager College.
“Nearly impossible,” he said of attending college while homeless. “My laptop was stolen six times, medical supplies stolen almost every night, assaulted every night, and I left the shelter because it’s so much safer staying under an overpass or bridge or camp.”
Finding a way to charge his phone and computer were difficult, but so was finding time to do his homework while looking for a job or dealing with where he was going to eat or sleep.
“When I look back on it, I have no idea how I did it,” he said of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in medical specialities and an Advanced Emergency Medical Technicians certification. “I just never gave up.”
He said he lost his job as a medic after “speaking out against officers and how they treat people. No one wants to hire me for a uniform service. ... But I want to go back to working as a medic.”
For now, he survives selling plasma and staying with a friend. He volunteers with Team Rubicon, a veteran-based disaster relief organization, and with Nomad Alliance, a group that formed in the last few months to address basic needs of those living in camps.
“I still survive nickel to nickel,” he said.
Tyler “TK” Slack is an information technology director for a company that provides residential housing for people with intellectual disabilities. The 47-year-old Eagle Mountain man saw news reports of the camp cleanups and was moved to action.
“Last year I was involved in the protests thinking I was doing something good,” he said, as he picked up trash at Camp Last Hope during the cleanup. “Linked arms, wrote my number on my arm, was ready to go to jail ... then yelled at cops because that’s the mindset I was in, to yell at the people doing this to people.”
Then he saw a Facebook video Bellamy posted, and he said it completely changed his approach.
“She was saying that doesn’t help,” he said. “And I was believing her. Yeah, that’s not what helps the people I thought I was fighting for. What helps is getting down here and actually doing something to help them. All that does is cause trauma for them.”
He said helping unsheltered people has become his life’s mission.
“We have to address this issue,” Slack said. “We have to help everybody in need. Now that’s only going to happen if they accept the help, but we need to build a ramp to help them, not a wall. ... The issues are so complex. And addiction is one of the biggest ones. We need to realize they’re human beings, and not just dismiss them because we don’t understand.”
That sentiment is echoed over and over when those living unsheltered are asked what they want people to understand about them and their circumstances.
“People drive by like it’s a zoo, like we’re animals in a zoo,” said Jeff Landis, 47, who has piled his belongings next to a street sign where a volunteer promised to give him a ride to a new campsite. “Oh, look at the funny little bearded man! Well, I’m sorry but we’re human beings who fell on hard times, and things just got worse.”
“I don’t know that homelessness has increased due to the pandemic,” Keller said. But there are more people camping on the streets, and that’s made the issue more visible to everyone.
As for the camp cleanups and closures, Keller said the health department is trying to balance a number of issues and interests from the rights of private property owners to the health and safety of the wider community to the needs of unsheltered people.
“Really, when one deals with encampments, I would argue the strongest argument for not allowing them is the public health component,” Keller said. “But, I mean, where is that tipping point where it becomes a problem? And I would say when we have human waste, and it’s not contained. When we have garbage, and it’s not contained. When there are discarded syringes, which unfortunately, we see a lot of. When there is environmental degradation.”
Keller said the health department also works with the Department of Environmental Quality in monitoring the waterways and water sources.
“We’ve recently had a substantial spike in total coliform counts, which is basically the introduction of fecal matter into the Jordan River at high, high level,” he said. “And I would argue that corresponds with the number of encampments that we have along the Jordan River, as well. ... We’ve witnessed many times people washing out buckets that they’ve used as privies in the Jordan River. So, there is an environmental impact on things.”
This impact is something that concerns the Jordan River Parkway Commission, and it has noted an increase in river camping after camp abatements in Salt Lake City.
“The impact on the river is really intense,” said Soren Simonsen, executive director of the commission, who would love the city and county to collaborate on finding a designated campsite away from the river. “I suspect that until somebody feels stable, they may never seek assistance because they’re just focused on where their next meal is coming from and where they’re going to sleep.”
Bellamy and Keller are at odds a lot, but they agree that a more permanent campsite would be a much better alternative than the current system. It would require portable toilets maintained by either the city or the county and likely some kind of garbage pickup.
But those who support a designated campground can be found in government, advocacy and among those living unsheltered.
“There is never going to be no homelessness,” said Landis, who understands the need to clean up campsites when they get too big or too dirty. “They’re on a right path, I think, like placing people in some of these subsidized apartments. ... I think that’s a heck of a start.”
Keller said that addressing the myriad current issues will require unique partnerships and creative ideas.
“We need to look outside the box,” he said, “and look for some of these different solutions.”