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Utah cities to enforce laws against unsanctioned camping — but there's a catch

Posted at 3:28 PM, Nov 09, 2023

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Cities across Utah will begin enforcing laws against unsanctioned camping in an effort to push people living on the streets into temporary shelters.

The effort was announced at a news conference hosted by Governor Spencer Cox on Thursday, where he spoke about plans to provide more services for people experiencing homelessness over the winter.

"In a modern society it should not be allowed anywhere," he said of unsanctioned camping.

The governor insisted there were more shelter beds available now. He spoke outside an old liquor store that had been converted to temporary shelter. Gov. Cox also said that more services were being made available for people on the streets and cities and the state were united in their efforts to address homelessness.

"You have choices. We have something for you. We care about you," he said. "But you can’t do that here. If you want to go somewhere else and do that, that’s up to you."

But the anti-camping crackdown will only happen so long as there are shelter beds available.

"We most of all want people to have shelter. We need more capacity in the system," Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told FOX 13 News. "We have double the winter capacity opening now than we had last winter and it’s 24/7 instead of 7pm to 7am."

The mayor said there is a van the city has that can take people to the shelters. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said there would also be homeless service providers going around to get people connected to other resources.

"You really need to meet people where they are," she said. "And if somebody’s deeply addicted, the goal is to get them into our expanded Volunteers of America detox beds. If somebody just needs a home and is stable? We need to get them into a home."

The anti-camping enforcement efforts appear to have been a condition of philanthropic donations. Clark Ivory of Ivory Homes announced a coalition had raised $15 million for homeless services. But he signaled there was "friction" about contributions without the cities' enforcement of anti-camping laws.

"Truthfully, it’s been a hurdle to go raise money without knowing there was a commitment to enforcement," he told reporters on Thursday.

Still, it could be sticky with a lawsuit against Salt Lake City over a lack of enforcement of camping and other court rulings about shelter space.

It appears an anti-camping crackdown is already under way. FOX 13 News drove around Salt Lake City and found that places where tents had frequently popped up were gone. The mayors of other cities said they would also enforce laws against unsanctioned camping, so long as shelter beds were available.

Wendy Garvin, the director of the homeless resource group Unsheltered Utah, said the crackdown had already begun.

"There are still not enough beds available and this enforcement really harms a very, very vulnerable population," Garvin told FOX 13 News on Thursday. "Enforcement isn’t the answer. Housing and shelters are the answer."

Garvin said she agreed with Gov. Cox that more housing is needed. She called on the Utah State Legislature to step up and fund even more affordable housing. But Garvin argued that enforcement actions like this will only push tents and people into other neighborhoods.

"I think that sanctioned camping is a necessary reality for at least the short term. We can all agree people living in tents is not the best option," she said. "But if they’re going to live in tents anyway? Giving them a place they can be and putting some staff on site to make sure encampment is safe and well supplied as possible, it’s a temporary solution until the shelters are built and the housing is built."

Communities across the Wasatch Front are opening temporary shelters. Sandy and South Salt Lake are converting motels to provide shelter space. Midvale has a family shelter it has run for years. West Valley City opened its shelter on Redwood Road.

"It’s a good opportunity for our community to show the compassion we need to for those unhoused," West Valley City Mayor Karen Lang told FOX 13 News. "I look forward to being very successful."