How did you sleep last night? Darin Mann, Salt Lake City.
This is part of an ongoing series.
On the first Sunday in February, Darin Mann knew that sleep would not come easily. It had been hours since Mann watched police and paramedics take away the body of a woman who had lived in a tent in his front yard. Now he was standing on his porch in the wintry darkness.
“I’m really sad and exhausted – really wasted,” he said. “I freaked out too.”
In mid-January, a Salt Lake City community activist Mann began inviting the homeless to live in his three-acre garden in a modest suburb overlooking the Wasatch Mountains.
Neighbors blocked Mann’s phone with texts throughout Sunday. Some praised the 31-year-old man for his humane treatment of people that so many others in their neighborhood do not think about or even want to see.
Other texts weren’t as supportive. Mann, founder of a nonprofit called Village Cooperative, “caused undue stress” on neighbors who were “angry and worried you invited people to your front yard,” read a message.
The camp, called the Village Camp, held between five and 15 people at a time. Mann said he enforced rules against drug use and violence, and made sure residents had access to medicines, food and donations – even the bathroom in his home.
It should be a safe place where uninhabited people didn’t have to worry about their belongings being stolen or constantly worry about being told to move elsewhere.
By that February day, Mann said, everyone had been walking around with smiles on their faces, enjoying a sense of calm and sharing a pancake breakfast and dinner on an outdoor grill that Mann had set up in the middle of the yard. Mann said this was a time when he had the best sleep of his life.
“I slept well,” said Mann. “Everyone was watching over the place and I felt safe and protected.”
Then on Saturday, February 6th, the woman and her boyfriend went to sleep in their tent. The 45-year-old woman never woke up.
The tent in which the woman died was still in Mann’s yard. It was covered with layers of light blue tarpaulin to keep out the cold air – a desperate measure that may have resulted in her death, as the covers apparently also helped trap the toxic gases from the wood that she and her friend had burned to stay warm.
“I was near the tent a while ago and I could still smell it,” said one of the men who lived in another tent in the yard. He said he and others in the camp used the same wood, a leaflet they received in a different place where the uncased gathered.
At around 6 a.m. on February 7, the woman’s friend stumbled out of the blue tent and gasped, Mann said. Then he was taken to hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning. Mann said the police told him that this appeared to be the cause of death for the woman as well. The police would neither confirm nor deny this information.
Her family asked Mann not to share her name publicly, Mann said. But he said he had known her for about two months, that she broke out of a drug addiction, and that she was someone he considered a good friend. She and a handful of other people had helped him prepare his garden for spring planting and build the chain link fence around his house.
“She was just very motivated to improve her situation,” said Mann. “She tried to set a positive example of homelessness and put her things back in order.”
A few nights earlier, one of the villagers had knocked on Mann’s door in the middle of the night, alerting Mann to an attempted robbery at a neighbor’s house. But now people were tossing the word liability around, Mann said, and he felt very uncomfortable, like being the target of a “witch hunt.”
It seemed to him, he said, that people would use the woman’s death as “a justification for closing a camp that wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a major crisis in our city,” said Mann.
In January 2019, the last year for which statistics are available, it was approximately 2,800 people Utah homelessness on a given day, according to data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, in which millions of Americans, many of whom were low-income, lost their jobs.
Now Mann says he sees a lot more people without a residence on the sidewalks and in homeless camps. At the national level, current housing instability predictions are poor – and the country is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis. According to US census data, 30 to 40 million people could be at risk of eviction in the next few months.
Mann grew up in Salt Lake City with a father who “tried to be really strict and teach me the importance of responsibility and always be honest,” he said. His father, the head of a sprinkler company, cared a lot for his employees. Once he came home and told his family how he had bought false teeth for one of his employees who couldn’t afford them. Then his father cried that there was nothing more he could do to help the person, Mann said.
His mother “poured a lot of love on me,” he said. Even so, “as a child, Mann wasn’t a summer peach,” he said. He never indulged in drugs, he said, but he was a rebel who wanted to hang out in the woods instead of sitting in a classroom. After graduating from high school, Mann studied English literature with a focus on political theory at the University of Utah. His first and last job in America was as a telemarketer for a chain of gyms. He hated it, he said, and read books while working on the phones. He was eventually fired for telling a city official that the company had some “seedy” financial practices.
After that, he started working in the nonprofit world he loved. In 2018 he founded the Village Collective and bought his house with the help of his father, who co-signed the house. Three roommates help him pay the mortgage. One of them was homeless last year and lived in Mann’s garage for a while.
“He would clean the garage for me and help clean the house, and now he’s just a very dear friend of mine,” said Mann. “He lives here now and pays rent and works. He’s doing Instacart and Uber and stuff like that. “
Mann paused when I asked if he was religious.
He grew up in an agnostic family, he said. At age 20, he found meaning in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although he has stopped attending services – “many of us go to church on Sundays and cannot believe that there is a homeless camp in our neighborhood on a Monday,” he said – he blesses a sacrament and leads in his home each one a personal adoration through Sunday.
“I just want to be an embodiment of what I believe in,” said Mann.
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On February 7th, Man knelt on the wooden floor in his bedroom after watching the police carry the body away for private worship. He blessed his water and small piece of bread and asked God to bless and sanctify them.
Later that night, Mann focused on releasing his stress and grief. First he had a beer, he said. Then he danced wildly in his living room to electronic music with a violent thump to “get the energy out of my body”.
“I did some screaming exercises – just screaming as loudly as I could to let go of frustration, sadness and anger without any inhibitions,” said Mann.
Then he fell into the arms of a close friend who was holding him, he said.
He finally fell asleep around 2 or 3 in the morning.
The next morning he said he was still trying to digest everything that had happened. Perhaps, he admitted, his wish to save the world was naive.
“But you can’t do anything without being optimistic and naive,” he said. “I want to create a better world where everyone lives and thrives. 2021 is the time when we must start infecting the world with as much light as possible.”
Yes, he said, “it is unsafe to live in a tent – and we have to do something about it.”
Mann closed the village camp on February 10th. All were given more permanent accommodation in local hotel rooms paid for by the city, Mann said.
“I’m going to focus on a longer term community and really permanent housing,” said Mann.
Given his friends sleep better indoors under structures with real roofs, he sleeps better too, Mann said.
Apart from the late hours of the night when he stands in front of the whiteboard in his living room and thinks about how to start a tiny house community for the unhoused, what the project will look like and how to secure its funding.
Sleep doesn’t come until around 1 a.m., he said.
“It’s unrest,” said Mann. “I hope I can turn the energy from this tragedy into a positive thing.”
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.