SALT LAKE CITY — Luis Lopez, standing outside his tent near Taufer Park on Friday, said he’s been homeless for the past eight years or so.
Lopez, 37, said he’s lived in Utah ever since he moved from Los Angeles when he was 16. He said he’s struggled finding a job, and has cycled in and out of jail and prison because of drugs. He used to live in the Road Home’s downtown shelter before it shut down last year and has been on and off the streets since. He’s tried to get housing, but he needs to get a new ID first.
“I want to get out of here,” Lopez told KSL. “I’m tired of it, living on the street.”
But he’d rather camp than stay in one of Salt Lake County’s homeless resource centers, he said, because he’s not fond of crowds and the rules.
“It feels like a jail-type setting,” he said. “I’ve done enough jail and prison time, so I really don’t want to.”
So that’s what brought Lopez to what has become one of the largest homeless encampments in Salt Lake City this year, along 700 South near Taufer Park, where tents and tarps have amassed for months throughout the summer.
On-street camping and homelessness continues to be an issue in Utah’s capital, despite the millions state, city and county leaders spent on three new homeless resource centers that opened last year, and the $67 million Operation Rio Grande effort to clean up crime and drugs around the Road Home’s now-shuttered downtown shelter.
Friday was supposed to be the day the Taufer Park encampments would be cleared out — after weeks of intensive social outreach to connect the campers, what some call the “shelter resistant,” to services and get them off the streets.
But the Taufer Park cleanup didn’t pan out as planned.
The cleanup was supposed to cap off a three-week effort of increased outreach as part of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s Community Commitment Program, a two-phase initiative in Mendenhall’s winter plan to clean the city’s streets of biowaste and homeless encampments in 12 weeks, as well as increased outreach to connect those living on the streets with on-the-spot legal, social work, drug treatment and housing services.
Friday, a service fair had been set up in a parking lot near the encampments, where service providers ranging from the Fourth Street Clinic to the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association had erected white tents, bringing their services right to the unsheltered population.
Along with those weeks of effort, outreach workers spent all day Friday — and days prior — telling the campers the Salt Lake County Health Department would be coming to clean up the camps Friday, and they had to pick up their tents and move along before then or risk losing their stuff. Some were told 2 p.m., others 3 p.m. On Wednesday, campers were handed notices for the clean up.
But 2 p.m., then 3 p.m., then 4 p.m. rolled around. Still no camp cleanup crews came through the Taufer Park encampments.
Then, around 4:30 p.m., KSL was notified that Salt Lake police and the crews involved in the cleanup, which started near the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 946 S. 200 East, had decided to postpone the effort before reaching Taufer Park out of concerns about protests.
Michelle Hoon, project and policy manager with Salt Lake City’s homeless engagement and response team, under the Housing and Neighborhood Development department, said the decision had been made out of concern for safety.
In past cleanup efforts, protesters have caught wind of the efforts, sometimes showing up with cellphone cameras in-hand to accost the cleanup crews and police, accusing them of stealing homeless people’s possessions and forcing them off the streets when they have nowhere else to go.
Friday afternoon, there was no large presence of protesters at Taufer Park, but enough to cause police concern, Hoon said.
“What ends up happening with these things is these protesters show up, and they make it too difficult for the health department to continue, it’s possibly dangerous,” Hoon said. “So, safety first.”
So after weeks of effort, Taufer Park encampments stayed, though many of the homeless campers spent the afternoon tidying up their camps. Some had picked up and moved, anticipating a cleanup that never came. By the end of the day, dozens of tents at Taufer Park remained.
Asked if a cleanup that doesn’t happen as scheduled reinforces a cycle of campers never leaving, Hoon acknowledged with a sigh, “It doesn’t help, for sure.”
“But I get it. If it is too dangerous to continue for whatever reason, then I get it,” she said. “Nobody wants a big fight, you know? This is not something that anybody wants to create a big fight over.”
Hoon said she didn’t know where the effort goes from here — but she hopes an additional cleanup will be organized with police and the county health department, for the good of the neighborhood and the population living there.
Mark Augustine, with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, gives his card to Luis Lopez at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Augustine has helped Lopez with his legal needs in the past. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)
A gentle approach
The effort comes as, once again under pressure from the creeping cold as winter sets in, Salt Lake city and county leaders are scrambling to set up a temporary winter overflow shelter and address the hundreds of tent encampments that have cropped up throughout Salt Lake City.
Over the past three weeks, Volunteers of America Utah has deployed social workers into the on-street camping community — those near Taufer Park, some near the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, some along 500 West near the Rio Grande Depot — to take a soft, compassionate approach to connecting them to services and cleaning up camps. The goal is to eventually ease them off the streets into services, whether that be drug treatment, a motel room, or, if there’s space and they’re willing, into one of the homeless resource centers.
But that’s easier said than done.
“It is a tough population to reach, for sure,” Hoon said.
She described how, for the people camping on the streets, there’s no one reason why they may not want to go into a resource center or drug treatment. Every case is different, and it could take days if not weeks for a social worker to catch them on a day when they might be ready to accept services.
“This is us really trying to get at the root of resolving the homeless crises of the people who are staying in this encampment,” Hoon said. “It takes a long time to do.”
For the past three weeks, outreach workers have been offering available resource openings for what they’ve tracked to be about 80 people, Hoon said. Homeless resource center beds turn over every day, and availability varies. But motel vouchers are used to free up shelter beds so they can be offered on a daily basis to people living on the streets.
“Whatever openings are available, either in shelter or detox, are being communicated to these outreach teams, and then they are going out to people and saying, ‘Hey, there’s a spot available. Come in, let’s get you out of the cold.'”
Out of those 80 people, Hoon said only about a quarter have been receptive to help. Plus, over 100 drug treatment beds were available as of Friday, Hoon said, but outreach workers have had difficulty filling them.
So far, a running tally of people experiencing homelessness in the area is now up to about 175, though that number can vary since not all are actually sleeping in the area overnight. Of those people, 114 offers of resources have been extended to 82 people, according to city staff.
Only 16 have accepted placements, and 61 have refused. Five expressed interest in placements that were available, but some type of barrier (like a pending COVID-19 test or a requirement that they couldn’t be sheltered with their partner), caused them to not be housed. Sometimes they were offered a space in a program that later turned out to be unavailable. And others were hard to find again after having an initial conversation with an outreach worker.
“It’s super difficult,” Hoon said. “And so I think that there needs to be sort of a culture shift. What we’re seeing here is kind of a situation that’s difficult for people to get out of. And it becomes more and more difficult the bigger an encampment gets. It kind of turns into a community. They are, in a lot of ways, getting needs that they have identified met, and they may not necessarily want to leave that behind.”
“That being said …” Hoon said, trailing off as she turned to look behind her at the encampments. “This is not necessarily a sustainable situation.”
Trash lined the curbs, strewn around tents. Bike parts dangled from some of the trees. At Hoon’s feet, in the bushes around her in front of the Salt Lake County Liberty Senior Center, 6-inch rats rustled in the leaves. They could be seen scampering from bush to bush.
But cleanups aren’t the focus. Connecting people to services is the focus — but just because services are available, that doesn’t mean people will go, Hoon said.
“So this comes from a good place. We’re really trying to build those connections and get people to take resources and make sure people come inside,” she said. “But it does take time. And enforcement is a part of that, but it’s not the only part.”