Police, health department combat tent cities popping up in SLC

Posted at 10:20 PM, May 15, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City Police said with the warmer weather in recent months, more homeless people are camping outside on city streets and creating miniature tent cities.

But when police and the health department make campers move, they said the people just go set up camp somewhere else.

Many of the camps can be seen on 500 West and 500 South.

“We’re not trying to be an eyesore to people, a nuisance,” said one homeless camper who we’ll refer to as 'John,' who wanted to remain anonymous.

He and dozens of others call the tents and tarps along the street, home.

Another person, who also wanted to stay anonymous, said they camp in those areas because of the location in town.

“It's because of the closeness of things-- the eating places, establishments,” said the man, who we’ll call 'Jim.'

Police said it’s a big problem, that’s tricky for them to handle.

“They do have a lawful right to be on that street because it's a public place,” explained Detective Greg Wilking, with the Salt Lake City Police Department.

He said it becomes a police and health department issue when the campers stake out over extended periods of time, and when health concerns arise.

The Salt Lake County Health Department told Fox 13 in an email that they conduct community cleanups about once a week, to pick up “waste that could present a threat to public health, such as drug paraphernalia or items contaminated with human waste.”

But when police accompany the health department to move the camps out, Det. Wilking said, “they move on down the street a little ways,” and again set up camp.

He said police talk with each person and try to connect them with the proper resources to get help. He said it’s a frustrating cycle for officers.

“We can't necessarily arrest our way out of this and cite people, and really we don't want to do that,” Wilking said. “We don't want to hound people, but we do have to go through and ask them to move along.”

John, who lives in a camp on 500 South, said he doesn’t like it, either.

“They make us play musical tents, where they moving us around (sic),” John said.

But, he said they are just trying to survive.

“That's all we got,” said Thomas Jenkins, who said he usually sleeps along 500 West, sometimes in a tent. “There's not enough room for everybody in the shelter, so some of us choose to be outside.”

Others said even if there were room in the shelter, they’d want to camp anyway.

They said they prefer to live outside rather than stay in the shelter and abide by the shelter's rules.

“It's the freedom,” Jim said. “I'll choose when I want to sleep, go to bed and get up.”

Jenkins said he’d rather have the freedom, too.

“That's why a lot of us just choose to be out here,” he said.

But with that, comes dealing with being forced to constantly relocate camp.

On the chain link fence at a camp on 500 South and 400 West, a piece of paper headlined with “WARNING” explains that campers need to leave.

“They've already told us we got to be gone by nine a.m. in the morning,” John said.

He and others said they’ll move, but they’re not sure yet where.

“Somewhere around here, somewhere close,” Jim said.

And then they’ll start the process all over again.

The Salt Lake County Health Department said each time they clean up an area that affects people experiencing homelessness, “we work with partner agencies to ensure there are resources and services available to those potentially affected people: we confirm there are beds available at The Road Home or other shelters; Valley Behavioral Health sends its outreach team in advance of our crew to provide referrals to substance abuse and mental health services; we ensure there is storage space available at the HOPE Lockers for those affected to store their belongings.”