Behind one of Salt Lake City’s historical landmarks on Rio Grande Street lives a community of people of various backgrounds. On any given day, you can see men and women fixing tents and tarps in their encampments. Some are listening to music while others are lighting cigarettes. This is a common scene in other areas of the Salt Lake Valley.
For about a year, the Salt Lake County Health Department has been clearing out these encampment communities, displacing people and leaving some to lose what little belongings they have. Although the Health Department’s concern is to get people into a shelter and a warm bed, these “camp abatements” raise the question: is this the most humane way to help people who are living on the streets? Some local advocates think not.
“All it does is send agitated people all throughout the neighborhood who have nothing to do, have nowhere to go. It doesn’t help the situation,” said Wasatch Tenants United member John, who asked that his real name not be used.
However, Michelle Hoon, Salt Lake City Policy Manager for the Homeless Engagement Response Team, said that the abatements are necessary for public health and safety reasons and the city is helping by organizing resource fairs ahead of camp abatements. These fairs bring shelter, health care and mental health providers, as well as legal resources directly to people in the encampments.
Last April, Wasatch Tenants United (WTU), a group of volunteers that speaks up against unfair living conditions and rising living costs in the Salt Lake Valley, organized a hygiene kit drive to hand out convenient, on-the-go supplies to various encampments around the city.
The number of donations of toothpaste, sanitary wipes, and deodorant seemed endless as the volunteers organized the bags in a factory-line fashion. In total, 75 hygiene kits were made. The kits were split into four groups, with the Rio Grande group receiving priority, but there weren't enough kits to go around.
As the volunteers made their way back to their cars, one man called out, “Do you have any more?” John turned around and said somberly, “Sorry man.” No one said much afterward, but the WTU volunteers realized much more work is needed. As street campsites get shut down, others pop up.
According to the 2020 Point-In-Time Count, there were a total of 1,958 people considered to be homeless in Salt Lake County – an increase of 114 people from 2019. From 2017-2019, the total percentage of people returning to homelessness after having been in housing has remained around 40 percent.
One aspect of the homelessness solution lies with the balance of shelters and housing, said Michelle Hoon.
“If you just have a ton of shelters and you don't have any outflow, you don't have anywhere for people to go from that system. Those shelters are just going to build up and you’re going to spend more money on your emergency services when what you really want is to get people flowing through that system and into housing,” she said.
WTU plans to keep pushing for more affordable housing in Salt Lake City and have remained vocal on social media. The group is currently demanding inclusionary zoning to be put in place in future housing developments, especially after the news of the former Road Home homeless shelter on 210 S. Rio Grande Street being replaced by a new apartment complex called The RIO.
The RIO will house 210 units. At the moment, about 60 units will be affordable for those making around $35,000-$49,250 a year. WTU wonders how affordable these units will be, considering that Utah’s minimum wage is still at $7.25 an hour, which equates to about $15,000 a year for someone working full time.
An increase in the minimum wage would give working-class people more options for housing but that may take some years to be in full effect if approved by the state.
For now, those seeking affordable housing may need to settle for what they can find. Tina Balderrama, age 51, was given a two-month notice to vacate her rented home of six years to make way for construction of the Kozo House Apartments at 175 N. 600 West – another one of the many luxury developments changing the look of Salt Lake City’s West Side.
After getting help relocating to an apartment complex in Murray, Balderrama and her grandchildren have experienced clogged drains, broken appliances, dog feces covering the walkways, and two homicides within a week – one on the intersection leaving the complex, where a man was shot and killed, and one in the parking lot, where a mother was stabbed as she confronted a group of teenagers using racial slurs.
“I’d rather be camping on the north side of my old backyard now than be a prisoner inside my own home with the kids. I will not let them go outside; they are not allowed to take the dogs out either. We are prisoners here,” Balderrama said.