Utahns most vulnerable to sexual assault face doubt, stigmas in reporting
Oct 9, 2023, 10:18 PM | Updated: 10:43 pm
SALT LAKE CITY — For more than two years, Megan spent her days pacing along busy roads in Salt Lake City and slept at night wherever she could.
Exhausted and worried about getting COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in March 2020, Megan stayed for a night with a former neighbor who allowed her to crash on his couch.
“I went there because it was a refuge for me at one point,” she said. But she wasn’t safe there, she told the KSL Investigators.
Megan reported to police that he raped her that night.
“I can remember him laughing at me when I told him what he did to me,” Megan said of her former neighbor. “I hear that laugh.”
Megan, who asked KSL to withhold her last name in this report, isn’t alone. A 2022 analysis published by Utah State University’s Women and Leadership project found more than 1 in 5 patients undergoing a rape exam across eight Utah counties reported having no permanent address.
And while few sex crimes in the broader population are ever reported to police, unsheltered women face additional stigmas. Advocates say they’re even less likely to come forward and can face bias and judgment if they do.
Megan says that’s what happened in her case; Salt Lake City police dispute that.
Wendy Garvin of Unsheltered Utah, a group providing aid to those without stable housing, hears about this sort of sexual violence several times a week and sometimes daily. Most victims don’t call the police, Garvin told KSL.
“Why would you trust a system that has already let you fall through all of the cracks?” she said.
Some women don’t report for fear of retribution from their perpetrators. Others are more preoccupied with meeting basic needs like finding food and shelter than pursuing justice in the legal system. And many feel going to police just isn’t an option, especially if they’ve been cited for camping, trespassing or other violations in the past.
“The more women we see out here, and the numbers are rising rapidly, the more likely we are to see sexual assault,” Garvin said.
Violence is a key reason many lack stable housing in the first place.
The number of women seeking a shelter bed or other services as they flee domestic violence has grown significantly in recent years. It totaled 1,023 in 2021, up from 662 in 2017, according to data from Utah’s Office of Homeless Services published in a different report from the Women and Leadership Project.
Those with untreated mental illness or addiction are especially vulnerable, Garvin told KSL. So are women who turn to sex work to get by.
“There’s a stigma associated with people who engage in sex work, and an assumption they can’t be assaulted, which is just not true,” Garvin said.
Megan said she wanted to be honest when she filed a report of rape with Salt Lake City officers.
She told them she did sex work but in the police body camera video from her report, she says she didn’t offer – or consent – to sex with the man she says shoved her head into a couch and raped her more than three years ago.
“I still have the right to say no,” Megan said. “And it’s really hard to consent when your face is in a couch.”
The officers who took her report of rape began their investigation and encouraged her to go to a hospital for a forensic exam. However, Megan says they surprised her when they began to focus on her circumstances.
“Megan is homeless,” one officer is heard saying to another in body camera video of the interaction. “She said she was squatting.”
“I wasn’t squatting,” Megan replies in the recording. She explains her former neighbor allowed her to stay there.
A week later, Megan said she was still distraught. She used meth and got behind the wheel. She was arrested for nearly hitting an officer who pulled her over in a traffic stop, court records show.
She was sentenced to probation and later sent to prison for probation violations.
In prison, she got sober, she said, and filed a complaint with Salt Lake City police. In a draft of the letter she shared with KSL, she said her experience reporting to them left her feeling “belittled, shocked, alarmed and worthless.”
“I did my time,” Megan said. “I’m on parole. And I’m doing great. But guess what? They screwed up.”
Megan says it wasn’t until after she mailed in her complaint – almost two years after police took her initial report – that officers formally interviewed her and then questioned the suspect.
A police department spokesman told KSL that COVID-19 protocols in jail prevented detectives from interviewing Megan immediately and they didn’t know where was for some time but that changed when they received her complaint.
“At which point, detectives spoke with her at their earliest opportunity — not because she filed the complaint — but because they finally had a known location and way to contact her,” wrote spokesperson Brent Weisberg.
Megan said she had called the detective on her case multiple times before she went to prison, saying she was staying at a shelter.
Her former neighbor insisted what happened was consensual, according to a police report. Police later sent the case to prosecutors, but he was not arrested or charged, so KSL is not naming him at this time.
Megan believes investigators could have done more. She points out there’s no indication they tried to collect a condom she told them about. Or that they went to interview someone, she says she confided in just after the assault.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told KSL his officers take care to treat everyone with respect.
“That’s concerning,” Brown said of Megan’s criticisms. “But we looked at it and held it up against our policies and procedures and our expectations of how officers investigate these very traumatic sexual assault cases.”
Brown told KSL that an internal review did not sustain Megan’s allegation of bias. The police department would not release a copy of its internal investigation triggered by her complaint.
“When a crime has occurred, a crime has occurred,” Brown said. “And we investigate it, and we bring those resources to bear and to support the victim.”
He wouldn’t talk about the details of Megan’s case or any others. But in the last month, two men investigated by the department have been charged in separate sexual assaults of homeless women.
“It doesn’t matter where they sleep,” Brown said. “On the street, in a house. If they’re a victim of a crime, we want to be there for them.”
Brown said his department works continuously to foster trust with this community.
But Garvin believes more needs to be done. She’s asked repeatedly to meet with the police department to discuss solutions, she said, but it hasn’t happened.
“They are aware my concern is sexual assault is on the rise, violence in the camps is on the rise,” Garvin said.
“We need to have this conversation about how we treat our homeless population,” Megan added, “because they’re the most vulnerable.”
This report is part of a series examining how apparent gaps at every level of Utah’s criminal justice system fail to protect Utahns.
If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.