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How camp abatements affect Salt Lake City’s unsheltered people

Stacey Johnson
Emily Means
Stacey Johnson said she’s lost tents, sleeping bags, shoes and more during camp abatements in Salt Lake City. One attorney from the National Homelessness Law Center said that loss of survival gear can lead to difficult health and safety outcomes.

Stacey Johnson, 48, has been homeless in Salt Lake City for about a year. During that time, she estimated she’s been through about a dozen camp abatements, where camps get torn down, cleaned up and the people living there are moved out of the area.

Each time, she said it’s been difficult to rebuild.

“It is exhausting and it is scary because you don't have anything anymore,” Johnson said. “You walk away with absolutely nothing. Then you start picking stuff off the street and asking volunteers for help and praying to God.”

She said her husband’s health has also been part of the collateral damage.

“My husband is a Type 2 diabetic,” she said. “He also has had high blood pressure since he was a child. Each abatement, he’s lost his medication, except for the ones when we’ve been able to save them.”

The health and safety outcomes for people experiencing homelessness are top of mind on Homeless Persons Memorial Day. On Tuesday evening, service providers and community members gathered at a vigil to read the names of 116 people who died in Salt Lake City this year while homeless.

The National Homelessness Law Center noted this week that camp abatements should be part of that conversation.

This year, there were 49 days dedicated to camp abatements as part of Salt Lake City’s Community Commitment Program. The city partners with the county health department for the cleanups.

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the center, said these sweeps can make people even more vulnerable to illness and death.

“Life-saving and health-preserving medication can be thrown away as garbage,” Bauman said. “Warm clothing, blankets. People will be left without their survival gear exposed to the elements. And that, of course, creates a risk of death.”

Another part of the problem, she said, is shifting people around creates safety concerns for them.

“People are usually displaced from a location where they have some community, some familiarity with the area,” she said. “When they are displaced, they're displaced to less familiar and often more dangerous locations.”

Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City’s director of homelessness policy and outreach, acknowledged that camp abatements are hard, but they’re intended to address public health and safety issues.

“I think we would all agree that everyone needs to be inside for their safety and security overall, and that's the ultimate goal,” Johnston said. “The city's predicament is that most camps are ending up in Salt Lake City, and the bigger they grow, the more the health concerns are around them.”

Still, Stacey Johnson said her preference – as a person experiencing homelessness – would be for the city to have sanctioned camping.

She said she doesn’t want to keep rebuilding and she doesn’t want her and her husband to be memorialized at next year’s vigil.

“This is a 30-year marriage,” Johnson said. “We've already lost everything. We're scared of losing each other. We're scared of being sick and dying out here. That's our biggest fear is dying out here.”

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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