Salt Lake City may soon have a sanctioned homeless campground

Jun 14, 2023, 10:45 AM | Updated: Jun 16, 2023, 11:44 am

People walk past a homeless encampment on 400 West in Salt Lake City on Feb. 7, 2021. City, county ...

People walk past a homeless encampment on 400 West in Salt Lake City on Feb. 7, 2021. City, county and state officials in Utah are considering creating a sanctioned homeless campground, likely in Salt Lake City. (Laura Seitz/Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — By all indications, a sanctioned homeless campground is coming to Salt Lake City.

Such an idea has often been met with resistance from elected officials and the public. But as clusters of tents continue to spring up throughout the city, it appears some of that reluctance is waning.

In March, the Utah Office of Homeless Services released a plan to help combat homelessness. Part of that plan says that by 2025, “the state of Utah will identify public land to develop safe parking, structured sanctioned encampments and high access shelter.”

In a recent meeting with an advocacy group of women near or currently experiencing homelessness, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, “Sanctioned camping is coming.”

The Utah Office of Homeless Services has already begun working with the state and Utah Department of Transportation to identify lots and other abutting land along I-15 and I-80 for the purpose of a sanctioned homeless campground, Mendenhall added.

On Monday, the Salt Lake City Council discussed spending $500,000 on sanctioned homeless campsites. The discussion between council members illustrated the divisiveness and differing attitudes about how to best address the issue of homelessness.

“There are two crises — there is the affordable housing crisis which we all know is going to take time. Building takes time,” said Salt Lake City Council Vice Chairwoman Victoria Petro. “We also have the issue of now we have neighbors, both sheltered and unsheltered, who are living under undue stress because of this crisis who do not have another two, three years to wait for the other levels of government to get to the point where they can respond to it.”

Council members in support of the funding pointed to the success of a sanctioned homeless campground in Denver, run by the Colorado Village Collaborative. City, county and state officials from Utah visited the Colorado Village Collaborative’s program to see if the model could be implemented in Salt Lake City. The trip was among many taken by homeless officials to observe potential models.

“I could not wrap my head around it until I actually saw it. The conditions, the dignified conditions where people experiencing homelessness are living in Denver,” said Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros.

But Councilman Chris Wharton still had reservations.

“If the urgency is that we need to do something now and that any amount of relief will help, why is this the best use of the $500,000?” he asked during the council’s work session Monday. “It’s that I need to see there’s this stepping stone in between this model and what we have and that stepping stone is quite expensive.”

Funding and ongoing operational costs of the proposed sanctioned campgrounds are an anticipated barrier, Niederhauser said. The Utah Office of Homeless Services was allocated $1 million in one-time funds by the Utah Legislature to plan for homeless facilities.

Among the models the office observed was the Nevada Cares Campus Safe Camp, a noncongregate shelter, and Reno’s Hope Springs mini shelter model.

Those aren’t campsites consisting of tents of unsheltered people, but the mini shelter model has “pods” or small individual facilities that can lock, offering more security and privacy to those who are hesitant to enter a homeless resource shelter. While that model was among the favorites, Niederhauser expressed concerns regarding funding.

“They’ve used all that one-time money and they’re operating it with a lot of that one-time money so they’re concerned about the operation long term. And that concerns me also. You don’t want to get too far out with one-time money, especially with operations. You want that to be ongoing so you don’t have to disrupt that,” Niederhauser said. “That helped inform us on something we might want to do. We don’t know if that’s the solution yet but we’re looking at different models.”

In its work session, the council agreed to place the funding into a holding account so it could make that money available after more details of the plan can be hammered out. The Salt Lake City Council formally approved the budget along with the proposal in Tuesday’s formal session.

The decision was celebrated by homeless advocates and individuals currently experiencing homelessness who attended the meeting.

“Thank you so much. You’ve heard me incessantly begging, begging, on behalf of all these people desperate for a place to call home, safe place to be. Thank you so so very much. I’m so proud of each and every one of you. Thank you for working so hard to make this happen,” said Kseniya Kniazeva, founder of Nomad Alliance. “We’ve been talking about this for years and years before it was even a viable option. And we’ll work with you to squash all your concerns and make sure it’s safe and stable. And that time in a camp is brief and people are moved into housing.”

Nearly 30 unsheltered individuals attended the formal meeting Tuesday to comment on the plan.

“I know having camps everywhere around the city is just gross. And I understand, you know being a part of that myself. It’s embarrassing, but we need help. We don’t have a place to be and it’s hard. I’m a mother and I’m in recovery. And it took so much for me to get off the streets and I decided I’d call in for beds and I couldn’t get in. And it was hard. I’ve seen a lot of people out there struggling and there’s just as many resources as there are there isn’t enough,” said Amanda, who recently exited homelessness. She did not provide her last name.

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Salt Lake City may soon have a sanctioned homeless campground