The following story was funded byThe Economic Hardship Reporting Project and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with KUER, the Salt Lake City Weekly, The Standard-Examiner and The Spectrum News.
It’s an early January afternoon and behind the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City, several homeless individuals have been tediously packing up all their belongings in the numbing cold. That morning, the camp was broken up by police and now the small group was trying to pack their tents and belongings into carts and find a new place to make camp.
Carlos Jauregui, a former journeyman carpenter from California among the group, said he’s been homeless for decades. Eight of those years have been spent on the streets in Salt Lake City.
In that time, Jauregui has had more than his fair share of run-ins with police, who tell him to just keep moving.
“I asked them, where am I supposed to go? And they [say], ‘I don't know and I don't care, but you got to move,’” Jauregui said.
Jauregui was surprised to hear from a reporter that Salt Lake City recently spent millions from a state grant to hire more police to deal with the homeless. He wonders why it’s not spent on converting city property into sanctioned camping for people like him that don’t trust the shelter system. Standing in the grassy median of 500 West he points just across the street to where there is a stone awning at the depot, unused by the city that could shelter the homeless or to an empty lot on the other side of the street. Why not have sanctioned camping as a stepping stone for people on their way to more permanent housing he asks.
“I'm 61 years old and I want to be normal. You know, I don't do drugs. I don't get high. I'm just trying to live,” he said.
Salt Lake City could have used more funds on housing and services but chose not to.
In 2022, the Utah Legislature more than doubled the funds in its Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Fund. The account distributes grants to cities with homeless shelters and resource centers to help them deal with the impacts on their communities. The fund allows cities to spend the money either on police or on social services and other expenses to address the root causes of homelessness.
Since nearly $10 million was doled out in the summer of 2022, eight cities across the state, from Logan to St. George, have overwhelmingly spent the grant funding on police. More than $8.68 million or 91% of the funds went to public safety expenditures. Another 5%, or nearly half a million, went to social services and another 4%, just under $400,000, went to support for communities and neighborhoods — such as outreach and services for homes and businesses around shelters.
While the fund was geared toward helping cities deal with the negative impacts of shelters, critics say solely trying to police the problem is a mistake.
Bill Tibbitts of The Crossroads Urban Center, an advocacy organization for low-income Utahns, understands the need and that crime does unfortunately linger around homeless shelters. Still, he said spending on police amounts to a costly treatment for a symptom of homelessness that does nothing to address the underlying problem.
“I think it’s a sign the system is failing if you need more funds for first responders rather than services,” Tibbitts said.
The thick blue line
Cities lobbied the Legislature for the fund to help cover the costs of dispatching police and paramedics to respond to homeless calls, Tibbitts said. So, it does make sense that public safety is the largest line item of spending from the cities.
“If you find someone passed out in the snow or in the extreme heat, then it’s exactly first responders you want there.”
But he said attacking the root problem requires more.
“It takes more creativity to come up with something that reduces the need for police to engage with people experiencing homelessness,” Tibbits said.
Ogden’s $1.78 million from the state fund went to hiring four new full-time law enforcement officers, three emergency medical services providers and continued funding for two homeless service advocates.
That brings the city’s numbers up to 12 officers and nine EMT’s focused on homeless response.
South Salt Lake City hired a homeless strategies director and a homeless strategies coordinator and continued funding 12 full-time firefighters/EMTs and 11 full-time law enforcement employees.
Midvale used the funds to continue paying for six full-time shelter resource officers, three full-time patrol officers and set aside $630,000 for contract fees to the Unified Police Department.
Salt Lake City used its $2.75 million grant to hire two outreach staffers to meet with the homeless as part of its rapid response teams. They also hired two business and community liaisons through Volunteers of America and two housing case managers, also through the VOA. But the city spent 84% of its grant funding to hire 12 new police officers “dedicated to homeless response” and to buy new uniforms and equipment for the officers. That includes ballistic vests, body cameras, duty weapons and vehicles.
Andrew Johnston, director of homeless policy and outreach in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, said it’s all about balancing different solutions to the problem. He noted that Salt Lake City funds VOA street outreach teams and other outreach groups already operate in county libraries as well.
“We have a lot of those services and we always need more. What we didn’t have though was enough physical folks in the locations around the resource centers,” Johnston said.
Residents, businesses and homeless people themselves told the city there needed to be more law enforcement to protect communities around the shelters and the clients using them, he said. Police were needed, “to build that sense of trust and safety for those who are coming in for services that they're not going to walk out the door and confront drug dealing or human trafficking or other issues that are not necessarily at the resource center but could come close to it.”
While it’s true that social services are key, those remedies don’t work with every individual, Johnston said.
“We can social work [sic] a lot of those folks, but for criminal behavior, it doesn't always work well,” he said.
The Right Tools
How the city spends money on policing the homeless is an issue of concern even for groups not normally focused on the issue. That includes the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute. Amy Pomeroy, the institute’s criminal justice policy analyst, said in a statement that the funds are poorly spent on officers ill-equipped to deal with a complicated problem.
“We do police officers a disservice when we expect them to address homelessness, especially when we haven't given them the tools to do so. Really, all an officer can do is arrest someone, drive them to a homeless shelter or tell them to move along. None of those options is a real solution. Funds would be better spent on addressing the persistent mental illness which is at the root of most chronic homelessness."
Johnston, of Salt Lake City, acknowledged that there is no real training specific to dealing with homeless residents. He said he would hope the dedicated officers would at least undergo crisis intervention training — the kind that helps law enforcement de-escalate situations, especially with individuals experiencing mental health crises. But Salt Lake City did not stipulate the officers be required to take the training when seeking grant funding from the state.
Wendy Garvin is an advocate and executive director of Unsheltered Utah, a nonprofit that serves the homeless population that refuses to use the shelters. Her organization has helped to set up movie nights at the First United Methodist Church to allow the homeless extra shelter in a safe space during severe weather. She is encouraged that Salt Lake City hired more outreach and caseworkers, a development she said has made a huge difference for her clients.
She’s less enthusiastic about the new officers hired by cities using the state money. While Garvin applauds two officers hired by South Salt Lake as being very humane and focused on helping the homeless, overall she feels police can only do so much and, in some settings, can be a problem.
“I think we spend far too much on police resources. For example, Millcreek has a police officer that’s actually in the shelter the first two hours every night. They’re doing bag checks,” said Garvin. “That is a deterrent for our unsheltered population. There are people who won’t go in there because they don't feel safe being around a police officer in the shelter.”
If a police officer finds a weapon, for example, he or she might fall back on their academy training and question or cite the individual. A private security guard would have more flexibility to just take something from the individual for the night and give it back in the morning.
“That’s not a policing job, that’s a private security job,” she said.
Garvin said her organization also serves Ogden, and she praised the city as incredibly responsive with its police force. She added that officers coordinating with homeless outreach workers do a good job of linking up the unsheltered with available resources.
“I think Ogden has their sh** together better than most places,” Garvin said. She also commended the city’s efforts to get people into shelters when the weather is unsafe.
The Ogden fire and police departments have recently established a “Code Blue” system that sends an automated alert to officers and first responders during severe weather. It automatically opens up overflow shelter spaces and puts officers on notice to actively find the homeless and get them into the shelter system.
Garvin said it’s highly successful.
“During those cold days, nobody is outside. We can drive around for hours and not find a single person in a tent,” Garvin said.
Even so, Garvin said Ogden officers are still more likely to arrest the homeless for minor trespassing offenses. Ultimately they tend to fall back on their training.
Social workers, housing case workers and others can find solutions for the unsheltered, but she said generally speaking “police have one tool and that’s a hammer — they send them to jail.”
But there are still stubborn holdouts in Ogden — like two men this reporter talked with under a park pavilion being pounded by 40-degree rain, who refused to go into the nearby shelter. One man, Guadalupe Franco, kept busy sweeping rain away from his belongings with a broom handle modified with a squeegee taped to the end.
He said police that come by now do offer referrals for resources and the occasional bottle of water. But besides that, they can’t offer much, he said.
“All they do is send us down to The Lantern House,” he said, referring to Ogden’s largest shelter.
Anna Whitnack-Davidson, the homeless service advocate for Ogden, said having her team embedded in the Ogden Police Department has made tremendous progress in bridging a gap between law enforcement and the homeless. Over the years her team has helped multiple individuals who had been on the streets for decades find and keep housing. And she’s seen officers come to understand how difficult it is for people to get off the streets as well.
“I see a shift in the culture that’s happened on both sides. I love that we have people that can walk up and talk to an officer without being scared,” she said. “And to also have an officer come to me and say ‘I found a person living in their car and this person really needs help. What can we do?’— those actual conversations that are taking place are really lovely. I think that’s huge.”
Putting the money to other use
Not every grant recipient has used the state funding for police.
Logan and Richfield just expanded services to domestic violence shelters. The New Horizons Crisis Center in Richfield is a 45-bed domestic violence shelter serving the five rural counties surrounding it (Sevier, Piute, Millard, Sanpete and Wayne counties). In recent years, the shelter has had to accommodate more and more individuals experiencing homelessness.
New Horizons Executive Director Debbie Mayo said homelessness in rural counties is different than on the Wasatch Front, where the unsheltered congregate in parks and around shelters.
“They’re kind of more quietly in the corners,” Mayo said. Some individuals might live in run-down trailers with no heat or water parked on public land.
Their needs can be different as well. One of her big concerns is helping homeless individuals with gas money or buying them bikes so they can get to workplaces spread far and wide among the small cities and towns.
“There’s no public transportation here,” Mayo said. “So, there’s definitely different barriers in a rural area than in the city.”
While the issues may be different, they sprout from the same causes, and Mayo, like her urban counterparts, said the rise in homelessness has been a direct result of a lack of affordable housing and a jump in home prices.
“The limited housing in our area along with everywhere else is the same way,” Mayo said. “If you have a job making 14 bucks an hour, it’s really hard to afford $1,000 a month in rent.”
Tibbitts argued that the state money could be more efficiently directed to housing projects elsewhere if the grant structure were different. He said police can become the default when cities don’t have good housing, rental assistance or social services to expand. For him, directing the money just to individual cities misses the opportunity for addressing the bigger picture.
“Major homeless services should be at the county level or even a regional level,” Tibbits said.
Garvin with Unsheltered Utah agrees funding needs to happen outside the city. If she had a magic wand she would wave it to create a 24/7 regional or county mental resource center where individuals can get evaluated without getting locked up or having to go into an emergency room.
“We have so many people who have been really traumatized by institutions — whether it be a medical institution or a jail or prison,” Garvin said. “It can be very hard for people to go into a big hospital and know they have to go through an ER process when what they are having is a mental health emergency.”
Garvin said the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team of crisis workers from the Huntsman Mental Health Institute could be expanded and given better training to deal with the unsheltered.
While housing and behavioral health services are not always seen as readily available for smaller jurisdictions, Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams said his city decided nevertheless to try and address root causes.
The city received a total of $123,530 and directed a portion of that to rental deposits for individuals and households facing homelessness and emergency hotel and motel vouchers.
The city also wanted to address crime at and around the shelter but opted to leave police out of it. So they used nearly a third of the grant to hire an employee of the Iron County Care and Share who would do both case management with clients and provide security as well.
“It just made sense that someone who could be stationed there doing security, doing outreach, would get to know every one of those individuals … and then be able to partner with us and our officers in trying to address this issue,” Adams said. “Because, as you know, homelessness is not illegal, just like being mentally ill is not illegal.”