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In Salt Lake City, councilors detail what they can and can’t do on homelessness

Three city councilors sit behind a desk.
Sean Higgins
(From L-R) Salt Lake City Councilors Ana Valdemoros, Chris Wharton and Alejandro Puy address residents at a community discussion on homelessness on Oct. 2, 2023.

In Salt Lake City, tensions have run high on the issue of homelessness for months. After recent attempts to clear out encampments near the old Rio Grande Depot, the issue is back in the spotlight.

Councilors Alejandro Puy, Chris Wharton and Ana Valdemoros all represent parts of the downtown area. The trio hosted a conversation on homelessness at Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Center on Oct. 2.

They spoke about the challenges not just facing Salt Lake City, but cities nationwide to a crowd of about 50 residents.

“When we are talking about mental health and substance abuse and the housing crisis, we're talking about something that is of pandemic proportions,” said District 2’s Puy, who represents much of the city’s west side and the Rio Grande area. “I mean, we're not talking about something very small. We're talking about something that is affecting every community in the country.”

According to the 2023 state homelessness report, Utah’s homeless population has risen every year since 2020.

Certainly it's been more present in my neighborhood and in the area where I travel,” said Seth Horowitz, who attended the discussion with his family. “Probably since the Rio Grande upheaval [in 2017] I've seen it more present in my neighborhood, in the parks, when I'm riding my bike to work and such.”

I know that it feels frustrating and I know sometimes it feels like we're not making any progress,” Wharton told attendees. “In fact, sometimes it feels like we're going backwards. But I want you to remember that there are all of these changing dynamics that have been happening over the last couple of years.”

That rise in homelessness has largely been attributed to things like the COVID-19 pandemic and the sharp rise in housing costs that followed. Utah also suffers from a lack of affordable housing options.

Homelessness and how the city addresses it has been front and center for candidates running for both mayor and city council positions.

The city’s three mayoral candidates — incumbent Mayor Erin Mendenhall, former Mayor Rocky Anderson and Michael Valentine — have all made homelessness a central issue on the campaign trail.

Some in attendance at the Q&A wanted to see more alternatives than just police interacting with the city’s homeless population in the future.

“I think the more that we can have social workers reaching out to homeless people instead of just police officers,” said Celia Horowitz, Seth Horowitz’s daughter. “If we had facilities that were mental health treatment facilities that we could bring people to, I think that would be ideal.”

Salt Lake City has taken some steps to address the issue. A central mission of the urban park ranger program is outreach to the city’s homeless population. A tiny home pilot project is slated to take shape in the near future, and a 50 person temporary shelter — or sanctioned camping — community is expected to come online in November.

But that hasn’t been enough to quell some of the unease felt by residents.

At the end of September a group of residents, including businessman and former mayoral candidate David Ibarra, filed a lawsuit against the city.

The complaint alleges Salt Lake is breaking the law by allowing illegal homeless encampments on city-owned land and that the city has “lawfully create[d] public and private nuisances on the streets, sidewalks, and public parks that it owns and controls.”

In response to a direct question about the city’s enforcement of its no-camping ordinance, councilors pointed to a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a city cannot enforce an anti-camping ordinance if it cannot also put a roof over everyone’s head.

“You basically are barred from enforcing [the law] unless you can guarantee a bed for everyone that's on the street,” said Wharton. “Now we are in a situation where on those nights, we cannot enforce the camping ordinance because we can't guarantee that there are beds.”

Salt Lake City previously had a moratorium on new, permanent homeless shelters in the city but voted to lift that ban in May.

The council will discuss the city’s anti-gentrification initiative and affordable housing incentives at its Oct. 3 meeting.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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