SALT LAKE CITY — As Darin Mann watched police and paramedics carry away the body of a woman who’d lived in a tent on the front lawn of his Salt Lake home for the last month, he felt a mixture of sadness and resolve.
The woman, whose name has not been released by police pending notification of family, and her boyfriend were the first people Mann invited to his property on the corner of 800 West and 500 North. He awoke to a friend’s dog barking, followed by his friend telling him “there was a body” in his front yard.
“I just freaked out,” Mann said a few hours after police were summoned by the woman’s boyfriend just after 6 a.m. “I just had a flood of emotions because this is the last thing I ever wanted to have happen. The whole reason they’re here is to have stability and security.”
According to another camp resident, David Davis, the woman’s boyfriend was on the phone with police concerned that he couldn’t find his girlfriend.
“He said he was discombobulated, didn’t know what was going on,” Davis said, adding he thought the man was having a stroke. He said he was asked to get the man some shoes, and that’s when he found the woman’s lifeless body, between a mattress and the wall of the tent, partially covered by blankets.
Mann said police told him they suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, as the couple had been burning coals or wood inside the tent in an effort to stay warm. But Salt Lake Police Lt. Steve Wooldridge said the medical examiner’s office will determine the manner and cause of death, and that can take weeks.
“At this point, we don’t have any indication of trauma,” he said. The man was taken to an area hospital, but there was no further information available on his condition.
“This is a tragedy,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement. “My heart goes out to the friends, family and community who cared for the deceased in this senseless death. While the police investigate this sad situation, the city is working with the homeowner to transport individuals remaining at his residence to available shelter. My hope is that anyone sleeping in a tent or on our streets will instead choose a safer path and connect with our homeless services system. Utilizing them can help prevent further tragedies like this one.”
Wooldridge said the police department’s social workers were helping the remaining campers on Mann’s property to “get them into homeless services.”
Mann was visibly shaken as he talked about what comes next for him and those camping on his property.
“It redoubles my efforts,” he said. “I’m actually launching a GoFundMe right now ... for a tiny home community, so we can start to do immediate shelter for these people and meet their immediate needs and have a lower barrier for access to these tiny homes.”
Mann and others have lobbied the city for a designated camping area for unsheltered people because the issues that arise with them camping on private property or in or near parks create instability for people who are already struggling. Listening to the concerns of people living in these camps, which can be found in about a dozen locations in Salt Lake County, was what motivated Mann to begin offering space in his front yard to campers.
“I don’t have the resources here,” he said. “That’s become apparent. I can only do it so much on my private property, with my own private funds and donations from the community, like it’s become clear that I was a bit naive and optimistic, but now the solution has to be so much quicker. It has to be resolved immediately. So it’s redoubled my efforts. ....To see that woman laying there in the dirt was... I’m having so many emotions.”
There were shelter beds available last night, according to city officials. On Saturday, there were actually 10 or more beds available at all six shelters, including the Airport Inn, which will take both singles and couples. Government officials and advocates have been working on resolving why some people do not go to the shelters.
City officials and service providers spent three days last week at a large camp providing information about housing, a myriad of social services, medical help and assistance with criminal issues.
The couple moved to Mann’s yard because it felt more secure and stable since they had permission to be there. Mann said the couple had helped him build a fence that made the yard more secure, and they helped him with other maintenance projects.
“(The man) is homeless because of COVID,” Mann said. “He really wants to get back on his feet. And now his girlfriend is dead, and he’s in the hospital.”
Correction: An earlier version said Salt Lake City operated shelters. The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness coordinates homeless resource centers that are operated by contracted service providers.