SALT LAKE CITY — Utah doesn’t have enough shelter beds for people without homes, but these individuals can’t legally camp in a parking strip or a park, near train tracks or under the freeway.
In Salt Lake City, which has the state’s most concentrated homeless population, police are regularly enforcing the camping ban for the first time in years, breaking up mini-tent cities and pushing the unsheltered farther out of the downtown core.
For many people without homes and the advocates who help them, and even for Salt Lake City’s two newest City Council members, there’s an obvious solution: They want the city to designate a place for people to camp legally. They also want a spot where people can park cars, vans and recreational vehicles if they sleep there.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who gets presented with this idea often, has a quick and unequivocal answer.
“Heck no,” she said. “Sorry, Salt Lake City is not doing a designated camping area.”
Mendenhall said it isn’t as easy as finding an empty field and declaring it a legal place to pitch a tent. Such a spot would need security. It would need portable restrooms and cleaning stations. It would need trash removal. Electricity. Heat. And once a city signs off on an encampment, it is hard to shut down.
“We can’t afford it,” she said during an October meeting of two community councils. “We can’t police it. We can’t do the engagement at it, and it would be a very poor situation.
“And I believe that in Salt Lake City — where we have four strong seasons, some really difficult weather conditions for parts of our year — we can do better than sanctioning an encampment.”
She prefers the idea of a tiny-home village, small structures in a fenced area with shared resources. The city is working with the Other Side Academy to build such a place. She originally hoped it would be ready for this year. But this concept is still working its way through the planning process, and construction is not likely to start for months.
In the meantime, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness has identified what it believes will be enough overflow shelter beds to get people out of the wintertime cold. This includes converting a west-side Ramada at the intersection of Redwood Road and North Temple into a temporary shelter, something Mendenhall and the City Council grudgingly agreed to do. The coalition says that overflow is vital, while it opposes a sanctioned encampment.