John Gardiner, whose family owns a Salt Lake City-based real estate business, didn’t mince words about his frustration about the “increasingly large lawless camps occupying” Salt Lake City neighborhoods.

“You see drug abuse occurring. Needles on the street. Excrement on the street. Drug-crazed people staggering down the street. Piles of garbage all over the place. Intoxicated people ... and, important to note, violent people who threaten public safety,” he said.

“My gosh, these camps look worse than Afghanistan,” Gardiner added. “And the management of the crisis is worse than Afghanistan. What city mayor or city council in their right minds, would allow these lawless camps to continue to exist? The answer is the Salt Lake City mayor and the Salt Lake City Council.

“This has to stop. It’s bad for the homeless. It’s bad for the neighborhood. And it’s bad for everyone.”

We can’t ‘watch our capital city deteriorate’

Gardiner joined other Salt Lake City business owners — including David Ibarra, who was one of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s mayoral competitors in 2019 — former U.S. Attorney John Huber, and the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of downtown business leaders, at a news conference on Tuesday.

Their message: Enough is enough. Salt Lake City needs to better enforce its anti-camping ordinance.

At his and other properties, Gardiner described “lawless neighborhood campers sleeping in our trash dumpsters, threatening single women residents who are just trying to take the trash out, defecating on the properties, taking baths in our hot tubs, trying to break into our parking garages and storage units, camping in the stairwell of our small office building, vandalizing the building, breaking into the building,” Gardiner said.

“It goes on and on and on.”

Huber, who said he was speaking as a private citizen who works in Utah’s capital and not as a government official, said all of the growth and development happening in downtown Salt Lake City — all the “beautiful apartments and condos going up” — will be “all for naught if there’s no public safety at the foundation of those beautiful buildings.”

“We cannot stand by and continue to watch our capital city deteriorate,” Huber said.

The “lawless feeling” in Salt Lake City has to end, the former U.S. attorney said.

“Now, does that mean it’s just crazy like Gotham City? No. But it means that there is a swath of lawlessness that exists in the city that is left unaddressed in a meaningful way.”

Huber said Salt Lake City’s elected leaders have “abdicated their responsibility regarding this pervasive lawless feeling and reality in downtown Salt Lake City.”

That “lawlessness,” Huber said, runs the spectrum: from quality of life crimes like “indecent exposure, public urination and defecation, on up to drug abuse, drug trafficking and violent felonies.”

“The source of this lawlessness centers around the chronic lawless camps that exist in and around Salt Lake City,” Huber said.

“We stand today at the epicenter of what that once was.”

They held the news conference in front of the green lawn of downtown Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park — a park that about four years ago was overrun by homeless encampments, drug use and drug dealing.

Tuesday afternoon, however, after Operation Rio Grande in 2017 cracked down on drug dealing and camping in the neighborhood, some people could be seen laying in the grass at the park, but there wasn’t a vast presence of homeless camps or lawless behavior.

However, that’s not to say homeless camps, crime and “lawlessness” isn’t happening around Salt Lake City — it’s just now spread out in other areas of the city, Huber said.

Is Salt Lake City camping better or worse?

“The problem has spread to the east side of Salt Lake City, to the northwest quadrant, and to the corners of the county,” Huber said. “These lawless, chronic homeless camps are the source of many problems that affect our daily quality of life.”

It’s particularly problematic in the city’s parks, Ibarra said, like east-side Liberty Park.

“It’s everywhere now,” said Ibarra, who once endorsed Mendenhall for mayor after he failed to advance past the primary election. “Every pocket park that was supposed to be for our kids, you can’t let your kids go to them anymore.”

Now, frustrated with Mendenhall and other Salt Lake City leaders’ response to crimes related to homelessness, Ibarra told the Deseret News he thinks he could be tackling the issue better if he were elected mayor.

“I would be getting the criticism, and in year three we would begin to see the results, because I wouldn’t have given up,” he said. “This city needs to be fixed.”

Huber said public officials have long been too reluctant to enforce camping ordinances because of a court case stemming from a Boise, Idaho law, which prohibited people from camping or sleeping on sidewalks but was struck down by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. He said that court case’s implications have been “exaggerated” by public officials.

“This faraway decision has empowered hyper conservative risk managers within municipalities as they advise city officials not to enforce these duly enacted laws that are on the books of Salt Lake City and other municipalities along the Wasatch Front,” Huber said. “You can’t camp on public land. You can’t set up a tent in the park strip and go to the bathroom there. There is no right to do that.”

Is it a crime to be homeless?
Some Salt Lake crime trending down, but work still needed, mayor says

Salt Lake City crime statistics

The group scoffed at Mendenhall and Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown’s news conference last week, also held at Pioneer Park, to say they believe overall crime trends in Salt Lake City are pacing down, but also acknowledged there’s still work to be done. While overall crime in Salt Lake City from the beginning of the year through the end of August is down, city officials reported, overall crime was up 2.9% on a five-year average, with property crimes (such as stolen property) and quality of life crimes (like vandalism) being down in most areas of the city.

However, Mendenhall and Brown did discuss some concerning exceptions, including property crime up 49% compared to the five-year average in areas including the Fairpark, Westpointe and Rose Park neighborhoods. Another disturbing trend is an increase in aggravated assaults throughout the city involving family members — including a 55% increase in Council District 5, which includes the Ballpark and Liberty Park neighborhoods, Brown told reporters.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Salt Lake City Police Department spokesman Brent Weisberg referred to comments Brown made last week.

“We will not let criminal activity go unchecked in our city. To those who say there is lawlessness in Salt Lake City, you are wrong,” Brown said at the time. “Our police officers are out every day building relationships, responding to crime, making arrests and they are referring those cases for prosecution.”

Weisberg also referred to the city’s latest crime statistics, which showed crime overall, when compared to the five-year average for the Rio Grande area, which includes Pioneer Park, is down 4.3%. Total violent crime, when compared to the 5-year average, for Rio Grande Area, which includes Pioneer Park is down 2%, he said.

Does Salt Lake City enforce camping ordinances?

As for camping, Weisberg said Salt Lake police officers are instructed to offer “multiple opportunities” for campers to leave on their own.

“Officers demonstrate compassion and common sense in their approach, involve the Community Connection Team, Volunteers of America and other stakeholders whenever practical and possible,” Weisberg said, adding officers follow three steps in enforcing the city’s camping ordinance: issue warnings, issue citations to those who have been warned but refuse to obey the law, and then book into jail criminal offenders.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s spokeswoman Lindsey Nikola also issued a statement on Tuesday saying city officials “appreciate” the Pioneer Park Coalition’s concerns, “but their frustration right now would be better directed at solutions to the statewide homelessness issue, including advocacy to our state government for the funding needed to make progress.”

“Solutions and actions to achieve them are the leadership Mayor Mendenhall has brought to public safety and homelessness in Salt Lake City,” Nikola said. “From convening the U.S. Attorney, Utah Public Safety Commissioner, and U.S. Marshall to help our city get high-impact criminals off the street, to expanding the work of Downtown Ambassadors, increasing pay to top-of-market for all first responders in the capital city, and coordinating with our police department on public safety focus areas within our city, Mayor Mendenhall is a leader who has consistently prioritized the safety of our city’s residents, visitors and business owners.” 

Regarding the camping ordinance, which Nikola described as a “separate but equally important issue,” the mayor has “laid out the responsible and humane conditions necessary for more consistent enforcement of encampment laws,” she said.

That includes an “assurance that the system has adequate emergency shelter for currently unsheltered individuals and mitigation funding for public safety needs,” Nikola said. “Individuals experiencing homelessness need access to resources in order to make long-term and effective change, which is why this administration organized the Community Commitment Program nearly one year ago, convening more than a dozen service providers to meet people where they are at, on the street.”

What’s being done for the homeless?

Mendenhall has repeatedly called on more cities across the state to step up and help serve more homeless Utahns. She’s raised alarms that, since their opening, Salt Lake County’s three homeless resource centers have operated essentially at- or near-max capacity. Last month, she backed a call to add 300 more emergency shelter beds into the county’s homeless system before this winter.

‘Whatever it takes’: Salt Lake City backs call for 300 more homeless shelter beds

But rather than Salt Lake City taking the burden of those 300 more beds, Mendenhall called on other partners outside of Salt Lake City — including state leaders and other cities — to step up.

As a member of the Utah Homeless Council, a new body tasked with coordinating and approving state funding for statewide homeless issues, Mendenhall previously voted in support of $3 million to fund a new homeless shelter proposed in the Ballpark neighborhood at a facility that is currently owned by Volunteers of America Utah at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave.

But last week, the mayor reversed course, saying she rescinded her vote when she heard the state funds would possibly be used for shelter beds at a different Salt Lake City location.

Why the Salt Lake City mayor changed her mind about a homeless shelter in Ballpark neighborhood

Tuesday, former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who is the state’s newly appointed chief homeless coordinator, updated the Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee on the proposal for the $3 million in state funds. The decision, he said, didn’t need ratification from the committee.

However, for the homeless shelter in the Ballpark to proceed, the proposal would still need land use approval from city officials, which would require a public process.