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Race, Religion & Social Justice

University of Utah report paints a picture of homelessness along the Jordan River

Jordan River Homelessness-1, April 11, 2022
Ivana Martinez
/
KUER
Tom Kalaher said he lived on the Jordan River for about eight months last year.

Standing on a bridge over the Jordan River on Salt Lake City’s west side, Tom Kalaher, 56, feels melancholy. The wind rustles tree branches while a crow squawks above him. A handful of tents are pitched on the riverbank where Kalaher used to live for about eight months last year.

“It was a good, safe place to go,” Kalaher said. “You're a little bit more remote from other people. We'd formed a little family group of about seven people that were pretty solid. We didn't have any problems. Everybody pulled their weight.”

A new report from researchers at the University of Utah, called “Drivers of Unsheltered Homelessness and Conservation along the Jordan River, Salt Lake County, Utah,” paints a clearer picture of homelessness along the river. After conducting 60 surveys and 16 interviews with people over multiple months and seasons, they found the average time people spent living at the river was nearly two years.

Researchers found the sense of security and community that Kalaher described was a common response to why people set up camp at the river. The analysis also shows many moved here after their previous encampments were taken down by city and county officials.

Jordan River Homelessness-2, April 11, 2022
Ivana Martinez
/
KUER
A few people are living out of tents on the banks of one section of the Jordan River.

Jeff Rose, the principal investigator for the project, said anxiety about future camp abatements was another major thread in the study.

“These are barriers for people who are trying to find a job, trying to find some sort of long-term housing situation,” Rose said. “If you can't leave your tent because you're afraid that you're going to lose your tent anytime you might leave it, then that just creates all these additional layers of insecurity in people's lives that are already pretty insecure.”

But as camps get larger, city officials say the problems associated with them do, too.

Michelle Hoon, who oversees Salt Lake City’s homeless engagement team, said they try to provide outreach to people along the river, but they can be a “particularly tough group of people to engage” because of how long they’ve been unsheltered.

“We really tend to try to focus abatement resources on the biggest camps because they tend to be associated with the most public health and public safety risks,” Hoon said. “You see far more heavy drug use in large camps, you see a lot more violence in large camps.”

As part of the analysis, researchers also recommended including the experience of unsheltered people in future management plans for the river. Rose said it’s about recognizing there will likely always be some level of homelessness there.

“I think we can make some small steps that would make encampments much more sustainable, [like] providing restrooms and providing nearby trash services, providing nearby clean water for drinking,” he said. “Those are relatively small investments that municipalities can make that would have a huge impact on people's lives and ultimately make these encampments much more sustainable, much more humane.”

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