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Is a city in Wyoming sending some of its homeless to Salt Lake City? Mayor Mendenhall ‘frustrated, but sadly not surprised’

Cities across nation need to do more for homeless, not pass the buck, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall says

SHARE Is a city in Wyoming sending some of its homeless to Salt Lake City? Mayor Mendenhall ‘frustrated, but sadly not surprised’

Joshua Martinez, who has been homeless for 10 years, and Savannah Carroll, who has been homeless since she was 13 years old, walk through Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Reports out of a Wyoming-based news outlet that Jackson law enforcement may be sending individuals experiencing homeless to Salt Lake City have sparked frustrations that have long been simmering.

For Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the reports are indicative of a larger issue, one that’s hard to track but also one that she said has been supported by anecdotal stories for years. That other cities — in and outside of Utah — have been sending their homeless to Salt Lake City and its resources, rather than grappling with the issue at home.

“I’m frustrated, but sadly not surprised,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News in an interview Friday morning. “This is just another bit of evidence to an overarching theme that we’ve known in Salt Lake City for years.”

Mendenhall said she’s had “mayors and council people from the Wasatch Front and back look me in the eye over the last several years and tell me, ‘If we see someone experiencing homelessness in our city, we put them in the back of a cop car and drop them off in Salt Lake City.’”

Michelle Flynn, of the Road Home, gives a tour of Magnolia, a new permanent supportive housing building in Salt Lake City.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, right, gives a tour of Magnolia, a new permanent supportive housing building, during its opening celebration in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 24, 2021. The new building, owned by Shelter the Homeless and operated by the Road Home, has 65 units for people who have experienced homelessness.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The mayor said she believes it comes from a “compassionate place” because Salt Lake City has more resources than other areas, “but there are entirely not enough resources for a single city” to help an entire state’s homeless population — let alone individuals from other states.

Salt Lake City isn’t all alone, she added, crediting Ogden, St. George, Midvale and South Salt Lake with hosting homeless resource facilities. “But basically five cities in this entire state are shouldering a statewide housing and homelessness crisis. And it’s untenable.”

How many homeless are coming to Utah?

It’s not clear just how many homeless individuals have come to Salt Lake City from Wyoming for services. But in a story published Tuesday by the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Lt. Russ Ruschill of the Jackson Police Department said he knows local law enforcement officials have bought bus tickets for at least three unhoused individuals. However, the outlet notes “official records aren’t kept and officers don’t always share when they have provided that service.”

“The current playbook for helping the ‘chronically’ unhoused in Teton County varies, but if they’re deemed to be committing a crime, police will issue a citation or arrest them,” the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported. “If a mental health crisis is occurring, they may take them to the hospital for medical attention or partner with the Community Counseling Center or Salvation Army to find a place for them to go.”

An initial version of the news article also stated a Teton County Circuit Court judge issued a release order for one “frequent flier” who has cycled in and out of jail “that he could either enroll in Teton County’s 24/7 program, a program that mandates defendants to give bodily samples to test their sobriety, or go to Salt Lake City.” However, on Friday, the outlet issued a correction to a “significant error,” noting a different court official signed the order and that it actually ordered the man to “twice daily test his sobriety or transport to the Salt Lake City Express ‘for med tx in SLC,’” which the judge said “means ‘for medical treatment in Salt Lake City.”

“The News&Guide regrets the error and worked to correct it as soon as it was brought to our attention,” the outlet stated in the correction. “Reporting continues on this important topic, and the newspaper stands by the balance of the article, which discusses how officials use many tools to respond to calls about unhoused individuals, including sometimes buying them bus tickets to Salt Lake City.”

The outlet also noted the ACLU of Wyoming is suing Teton County for its 24/7 program, claiming requiring defendants to give twice-daily breath samples before they are convicted is unconstitutional.

Attempts to reach Ruschill on Friday were unsuccessful, and the Deseret News was referred to Susan Scarlata, a “community engagement specialist” with the town of Jackson. She did not immediately return a request for comment.

Teton County Circuit Judge James Radda, who the Jackson media outlet initially incorrectly reported as the judge writing release orders, referred the Deseret News to a series of emails with the News & Guide reporter that ultimately led to a correction to the story. He wrote in an email shared with other media outlets that he has never issued an order that “conditioned a defendant’s release by requiring the defendant to ‘leave Jackson,’ or like orders, on account of homelessness.”

That doesn’t negate, however, that law enforcement officials have on at least three occasions bought bus tickets to Salt Lake City for people experiencing homelessness, according to Ruschill’s comments to the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Mendenhall said her office heard “anecdotally, unofficially” from service providers Thursday “that there are individuals who have (been) identified coming directly from Wyoming, but we did not press to find out their personal information about which location.”

Asked Thursday if homeless service providers are aware of anyone from Wyoming currently receiving services at their facilities, officials with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness issued a statement saying, “we do not have additional insight or information about circumstances in Wyoming at this time.”

The coalition’s goal is to “render homelessness brief, rare, and non-recurring,” the statement continued, adding its network of homeless service providers “will continue to equitably serve people in need of assistance who arrive at our facilities, no matter where they come from.”

“Homelessness is a national concern. Evidence-based solutions are critical to addressing homelessness,” the coalition added. “We encourage local governments to avoid criminalization of homelessness while collaborating with their Continuum of Care to provide assistance and seek permanent housing solutions for people living without a safe and stable place to call home.”


“I understand, as well as any capital city mayor in this nation, that homelessness is the most difficult issue we face,” Mendenhall said, “because the federal government, even state and county governments are not working together and are not bringing enough funding to address what is a national crisis.”

Mendenhall in a series of tweets Thursday directly urged Jackson Mayor Hailey Levinson and other Jackson officials to “work with their local partners in Teton County and the State of Wyoming to address these issues in their city and state.”

“This confirmation that other cities send their residents experiencing homelessness to #SLC is not surprising. But to know it’s being done via manipulation of the criminal justice system is irresponsible, disheartening, and cruel at a humanitarian level,” Mendenhall tweeted.

It’s “yet another clear indicator that cities and states all across the country — even in one of the wealthiest places in the U.S. — are struggling to address the accelerating humanitarian crisis of homelessness,” Mendenhall added. “I urge other cities and regions to develop resources to keep people closer to their homes instead of forcing people to become refugees in their own country.”

Mendenhall said she wants to understand Levinson’s perspective “and let her have a chance to tell me what’s going on there,” noting Levinson was not interviewed for the Jackson Hole News & Guide story. However, Mendenhall added she also wants her to know “any amount of displacement of their residents from Wyoming to another state because of the inability or the unwillingness to address their needs is wholly irresponsible.”

Levinson did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.