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Community Members Protest Salt Lake Efforts To Clean Up Homeless Campsites

A photo of a no camping sign with the words 'no camping' with green spray paint over them.
Emily Means
Community members went out to Rio Grande Street and other areas of Salt Lake City Thursday to support unsheltered people during an encampment cleanup by the Salt Lake County Health Department. The department posted notifications the day before.

A dozen or so community members showed up Thursday to support unsheltered people on Rio Grande Street and help them pack up, a day after the Salt Lake County health department notified them that they needed to remove their belongings. It was the second time in two weeks that has happened.

Lou McKee was there handing out garbage bags and informing people about their rights. She said she experienced homelessness for a few months almost 15 years ago.

“You realize, in an instant, you are one of these people,” Mckee said. “You are no different from these people, and that these are your neighbors.”

Marvin Oliveros said he and others regularly bring supplies to people experiencing homelessness. It's not a protest in the way people often think about it — instead, their goal is to show up at the cleanups with great enough numbers to get the county health department and police to stop displacing people and leave them alone.

“For those folks that can’t move fast enough or can’t move at all, we’re here to stand with them while they’re here,” Oliveros said. “For their safety.”

Dale Keller, environmental health manager for Salt Lake County, said the county has been conducting camp cleanups to pick up needles and waste multiple times a week for more than a decade. They respond to complaints from neighbors, businesses and city agencies.

“Our focus is two-fold: public and environmental health,” Keller said. “That’s the only reason why the health department is involved in this.”

Keller said the health department posted notice of the cleanup the day before as well as talking with people at campsites throughout the city about what would happen. But he said the intention Thursday was not for people to vacate the area.

“We just wanted people to consolidate their belongings and get them on the sidewalk,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to move them along because [in the] parts of the city that we were at — the neighbors are just really getting fatigued with the garbage and the trash and the other difficulties that are there.”

Recently, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a plan to increase encampment cleanup efforts throughout the city, particularly in areas where a lot of unsheltered people live. In response to the protests, Mendenhall said the cleanups are important for both campers and the community as a whole.

“We’re coordinating with the county to get better, clearer messaging to people so they know exactly what to expect when these cleanings are happening,” she said. “The health department asks people to move for sanitation to take place, but these events are not intended to threaten campers in any way.”

Keller, the county’s environmental health manager, said although they didn’t complete encampment clean up Thursday, the abatements will continue to happen, after the health department strategizes with social service providers and public safety stakeholders on how to move forward.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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