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Politics & Government

SLC Mayor wants park rangers to promote safety, but some community members worry about impacts to homeless people

A photo of a homeless encampment in a park.
Emily Means
/
KUER
A tent set up in one of Salt Lake City’s parks. One community member who provides outreach to unsheltered people called public parks the “next best option” when there’s no shelter available.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a proposal Monday to use $3.9 million in federal funding for a new park ranger program.

The money would support 16 rangers at a handful of parks throughout the city: Pioneer, Liberty, Fairmont and Jordan as well as along the Jordan River Parkway.

Mendenhall said they’ll be there to provide information to visitors, but their most important job is to address safety issues.

“I know that rising crime in our parks has concerned all of us,” Mendenhall said. “Every person in our city should feel safe spending time in our parks, and these rangers will play an integral role in creating an atmosphere of safety and reliability.”

But some community members view the program as another way to police homelessness.

Carl Moore said the parks where the rangers will be are areas where many unsheltered people stay. He provides outreach to people experiencing homelessness in the city.

“They're going to have to enforce the park rules, and those park rules don't allow for overnight camping,” Moore said. “People are just trying to survive, and public parks are the exact place that we should have them.”

Homelessness appears to be at least one part of the consideration with the park ranger program on the city’s end.

At a city council meeting last month, Police Chief Mike Brown said the city’s bike officers patrol parks for drug use, illegal camping and violent crime.

He said there aren’t enough officers to keep up with an increase in calls for service, which includes “transient-related” problems — meaning a community member called in an issue as being related to homelessness. He said many of those come from parks.

Mendenhall mentioned at the meeting the potential for a park ranger program, which she told KUER the city has considered for years.

“I think we should re-initiate these discussions with our public lands folks as well, in conjunction with our police department,” she said during the council meeting.

Cameron is a member of Open Air Shelter Coalition, a community effort to meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness. They declined to give their last name due to past harassment they say members of their group have received.

They said they don’t have much hope for the ranger program.

“It is just continuing the mayor's policy of what I would describe as cruelty,” Cameron said. “The mayor has demonstrated that she isn't actually interested in solving the issues around homelessness. Instead, she would much rather hide the problem or push it away.”

In an email to KUER, Mendenhall responded to the criticism of the proposal. She argued the city “does not criminalize homelessness” and has advocated for homeless shelter beds.

“However, the City has seen more criminal activity in and around encampments, and our job is to make sure that all residents and visitors to our parks and public lands are safe,” she said. “Park rangers are not police officers but will be a resource to make sure our parks are welcoming and safe.”

Mendenhall said they’ll be working with the city’s homeless engagement team to connect people with resources. Generally, she said rangers should be able to resolve many safety issues on their own, “but if something rises to the level of criminal activity, our City’s police department would step in to enforce the law.”

The city council will likely discuss the proposed funding for the ranger program next month.

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