Why director says homeless camps ‘made sense’ for Salt Lake City

Brandie Smith packs her things while excavators pick up the remains of homeless camps and load them onto dump trucks near the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on April 1, 2021, only options for dealing with overflow protection needs during the pandemic (Laura Seitz, Desert News)

SALT LAKE CITY – Despite a string of recent violent crimes and other incidents in Salt Lake homeless camps, the city’s homeless director says small camps were one of the only ways to cope with the ever-growing number of homeless people in the area amid the pandemic.

The city needs 300 more shelters for people on the street, said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City director of homelessness and public relations, Thursday when he presented leaders’ plans to tackle homelessness during an online event hosted by the Pioneer Park Coalition discussed.

COVID-19 made it “sensible” for the city to allow camping in smaller groups to keep transmission rates low and ensure stability and security, Johnston said.

“And that still happens and you will see an attempt to keep the bearings smaller, but there are bearings,” he said.

But if the 300 beds needed are found, “we can handle camping very differently than we do now, I think,” added Johnston.

Early Thursday, Salt Lake police shot dead a man suspected of stabbing and seriously injuring a woman in Pioneer Park near a homeless camp after allegedly cracking down on police officers. In mid-May, a man fatally hit another person in a homeless camp near 235 S. Rio Grande Street.

The city’s camps have also sparked conflict between activists and the Salt Lake County Health Department, which regularly cleans the camps if they get too big, dangerous, or become entrenched in an area

When asked to respond to business owners ‘concerns about crime in these areas and whether the city would consider a 24/7 foot patrol of police there, Johnston said discussions about officers’ overtime were needed to keep them up Provide services.

Salt Lake City Police Commissioner Mike Brown said in February that the department is continuing to work to resolve the loss of 60 employees last year following the summer riots, numerous protests, calls for a police defuse, controversy over the use of Police K-9s recover for arrest. an increase in violent crime, low morale and a hiring freeze. While new officers are hired, training and certification takes several months, Brown said.

“You’re trying to get people on patrol from a lot of other disciplines, investigations and other things. And sometimes that helps with an area, obviously, a presence and dealing with the immediate things that happen before everyone else. But it also means that the investigations that may get to the very root of things can sometimes take a little longer. But that would be a good question to speak to PD when they figure out how to balance their resource issues now, “said Johnston.

Downtown Ambassadors, a pilot program, also serves as a “presence that helps deter larger numbers,” he said. However, the program is expected to lose funding in 2022, he said, suggesting that it may need to continue.

Although short-term, temporary housing needs to be addressed, the single most important factor for the future is housing construction, Johnston said.

“And we have known that for many years. As a state, 15 or 20 years ago we did a great job of identifying that there are subpopulations and homeless people in the city and in the county who are not housed in our Shetler Building specific apartments tailored to their needs, which has taken the load off the housing system, “he said.

“When we talk about housing, it’s not just a platitude, it’s not just a simple answer to a complex question,” he added.

Live first is not the approach because it completely solves the problem, but it paves the way for individuals to get the services they need. If all efforts weren’t focused on long-term housing, Johnston said short-term solutions would become “permanent”.

“And if you look at many other cities, you will find that many of them have become permanent, in some cases where they don’t believe in living space at all. And so they are turning tents and these places into permanent places that I’m not sure anyone really wants to be the permanent answer, “said Johnston.

He said the dilemma is “creating multiple tracts” – “focusing on living continuously, not just for a short period of time. … It has to be a consistent process, ”as well as responding to the immediate needs of those down the road.

While Salt Lake City needs an additional 300 beds, there are close to 3,000 units in the county for those who are either in shelters, camping, or regularly going to shelters, Johnston noted.

“We’ll probably need 1,400 a year in the future just to keep up with the numbers as they seem to be growing. Our population as a whole continues to grow due to the strong economy and tight housing market,” said Johnston.

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