Fences go up near the Rio Grande Depot after Salt Lake clears 500 West homeless camp
Carlee Faust has been homeless in Salt Lake City for about the last year. The 38-year-old doesn’t stay in one place for too long in order to avoid camp abatements, so she spends a lot of time on her own. But she will visit friends where they are camped out.
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, she walked to the median island on 500 West behind the old Rio Grande Depot. Faust had been there the week before to see her friends, who were camped with what she estimated to be at least another 100 people.
But instead of tents and people covering the island, the area was fenced off. Faust was the only one there.
“What about my friends that were here?” Faust said. “Where’s everybody else? It’s kind of scary, it scares me.”
Earlier in the day, Faust had tried looking in other places where her friends often stayed, but didn’t have any luck.
On Sept. 13, Salt Lake County Health Department conducted a camp abatement in the area, according to spokesperson Nicholas Rupp. And on Monday, Sept. 18, Salt Lake City put up tall fences to prevent people from returning.
A sign posted on the fence says that the 500 West islands will be closed for 90 days “in order to address various health and safety concerns. These concerns include the presence of litter, medical waste, needles, and other drug paraphernalia.” The city’s parks division will “clean and restore the area.”
Wendy Garvin, executive director of the nonprofit Unsheltered Utah, said every time there’s an abatement like this one, she finds people looking for their friends and their “street families.” Sometimes they’re separated for weeks.
While camp abatements are not uncommon, Garvin said it was unusual that the area was fenced off afterward — although she added that is also not unheard of.
The islands on 500 West were a convenient place for people to camp out according to Garvin because of the proximity to services and restrooms, which can be especially important for senior citizens and people with disabilities who are homeless.
On Thursday, Sept. 21, Garvin walked along 700 West to check in with 67-year-old Donald Vogt, who was camped out by the freeway. Vogt, who calls himself “The First Cowboy,” was at the 500 West islands until the abatement. He said he moved somewhere else, but a police officer told him to leave that area, too, and then he headed to 700 West.
“It’s like every time we get comfortable someplace and we’re not bothering anybody, all of the sudden, ‘boom,’” he said.
Vogt walks with a cane and said he has melanoma on both of his legs.
“I have a hard time getting around. And they have been pulling us away each time, away from our resources,” Vogt said.
When Vogt was at the islands, Garvin said it would take only a few minutes to walk to a nearby portable restroom. Where he is now, it could take a couple of hours to get to a bathroom since he has a difficult time walking.
Vogt’s partner also has a disability and can’t walk that far, so Garvin said Unsheltered Utah gave her a bucket toilet.
“But I’m going to be honest, a bucket toilet is a poor excuse for human sanitation,” Garvin said.
Vogt said he doesn’t want to cause any harm, he just wants a place to sleep.
“We deserve better than this, especially senior citizens,” he said.
To Garvin, rejuvenating the islands should be a “pretty low-level priority considering we’re talking about the lives of senior citizens and people with disabilities who cannot get to the services they need now.”
For people who had to move on after the abatement, Garvin is also concerned about them being able to reach the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care to homeless people and was less than a half of a mile away from the 500 West islands.
After David Foster, who has been homeless for about the last year, had to leave 500 West, he moved his tent to an empty lot a few blocks away, but said he was told by a police officer that he would have to leave that place, too. He said if homeless people had a consistent place to stay, it would be easier to find a job, “to actually live a life, and get an apartment and everything else.”
Andrew Johnston, director of homeless policy and outreach for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, said camp abatements are not meant to solve the problem of homelessness.
“Solving homelessness, in general, is about housing and services,” Johnston said.
Johnston said the city does not want to criminalize homelessness, but “we do have no camping ordinance and nuisance ordinances that we have to, sort of, enforce and work on to ensure it’s not a public health issue overall.”
Heading into winter
Salt Lake County’s Winter Response Plan was finalized during the Sept. 21 Utah Homelessness Council meeting. The winter overflow shelter operations that are a part of the plan will start on Oct. 16. This plan includes 510 beds, although it adds that 600 overflow beds should be available by the end of November.
The city also recently announced a sanctioned campground pilot project, which will be near the 500 West islands.
Garvin said she’s heard a lot of despair from the homeless community recently and that they feel like the “city has really stepped up enforcement” over the summer. So, she said she’s feeling pretty hopeless heading into winter. Even with the 600 beds, Garvin does not think that’s enough to house everyone who is currently unsheltered.
“It is appalling to me that we live in a first-world country, in a wealthy city surrounded by big, beautiful buildings in every direction. And we can't find a way to keep these people out of the freezing cold.”