On Sept. 15, 2020, members of the Salt Lake community participated in a pack-in of the virtual city council meeting, organized by the prison abolitionist group, Decarcerate Utah.
One caller after the next demanded more funding be allocated to resources to help the shelterless populations in Salt Lake and objected to the abasement of homeless camps.
This public outcry is in response to Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s “COVID-19 Winter Plan” which she revealed on a pre-recorded city council session on Tuesday, Sept.1, 2020.
The plan consists of two phases, the first involving cleaning of bio-waste and garbage.
“Phase One will entail a 12-week enhanced neighborhood cleaning program that will ease the impacts of homelessness on both the unsheltered homeless and the neighborhoods,” Mendenhall said.
The second phase addresses various resources and new areas of funding to help those experiencing homelessness.
“Phase Two will focus on outreach by our Community Connection Center — social workers, service providers, legal defenders and the Justice Court — to encourage people to take care of outstanding warrants and access treatment or temporary housing,” Mendenhall said.
Decarcerate Utah is calling Mendenhall’s Plan “The New Operation Rio Grande,” referencing the 2017 “Operation Rio Grande” which attempted to prevent and minimize homelessness through three phases.
“It feels like you’re passing the buck up on us saying that we need to fix this problem. But you are our elected officials, and we are not seeing these problems addressed or taken care of in a productive way. Operation Rio Grande was a disaster and I would just like to call for compassion to our unhoused community members,” one caller said.
Mendenhall took to Twitter to address some inaccuracies she believed members of the public were interpreting from the announcement of her plan.
“1. People will have proper advance notice that a cleaning event will happen,” Mendenhall tweeted on Sept. 15, 2020.
However, some callers in the meeting took issue with what they believe to be Mendenhall’s false statements.
“The city has repeatedly posted notices with no date or time. Additionally, Health Department officials have actually told activists that they don’t have to give notice anymore,” one caller said.
On Decarcerate Utah’s Instagram, the organization responded to the specific points brought up in Mendenhall’s tweets, and pointed out what they believed to be lies.
In response to Mendenhall’s tweet stating they will not force homeless people out of camps if they do not have anywhere else to go, Decarcerate Utah pointed out while abatements are a part of Phase One, Phase Two involves camp closures enforced by the Salt Lake City Police Department.
“When councilman Johnston asked the mayor where campers are supposed to go, the mayor and her chief of staff said they ‘hoped’ the county will have warming stations. … They have no plan,” said one Instagram story post by Decarcerate Utah.
Below the thread of perceived misconceptions, Mendenhall attempted to clarify. She also shared some thoughts on camps and how they impact the community.
“Homelessness is not a crime, but some camps can and do present serious health and safety risks to those living in them and the public at large. Public spaces are for everyone,” Mendenhall tweeted on Sept. 15, 2020.
Some community members called on Mendenhall directly to make encampments legal in an effort to decriminalize homelessness.
“We’re demanding an immediate end to this plan and an immediate reinvestment of the budget to address the root causes of housing insecurity including affordable health care, employment and renter’s rights. We demand the city council utilize harm reduction strategies, including legal campsites and more public restrooms and showers,” one caller said.
Multiple callers referenced the warming centers the city put in place during and after the recent windstorm, saying although they were helpful for the time being, the police reverted to their unjust treatment of homeless individuals after the storm had passed.
“Y’all really put up a heating shelter the day after an apocalyptic storm and then it was right back to harassing homeless people. The way that SLPD terrorizes people for literally being poor is horrifying,” one caller said.
In addition to the mistreatment of homeless individuals by SLCPD, some callers referenced the SLCPD’s recent shooting of a 13-year-old boy with autism. They were called to assist with a “violent psych issue.”
“People need resources and do not need more policing. SLPD can’t even help themselves from shooting a f—ing 13-year-old white child. Do you think they won’t kill a houseless person downtown?” one caller said.
Many callers voiced their concern for the amount of funding SLCPD receives in light of the lack of resources available to help those experiencing homelessness.
“It’s immoral that you can’t give more funding to this, and the lack of political will and the lack of humanity on your parts. … You have money for weapons of death and destruction but you can’t protect some of the most vulnerable people in the community, and it’s disgusting,” one caller said.
Callers often questioned why no preventative measures are available for those experiencing homelessness.
“I would hope that the council would be willing to consider putting more funding towards actual essential resources and not to engage in breaking up camps that ultimately just cause more damage,” one caller said.
In a community council meeting on Sep. 3, Mendenhall said the two portable toilets which had been placed in the parking lot of Horizonte School due to COVID shutdowns would be removed after several complaints from community members about the congregations of individuals in the area.
Mendenhall cited the reason for removal as the transition of Salt Lake from the orange to the yellow level of COVID restriction, which would allow public restrooms to open up. However, some callers saw this as a threat to the homeless population.
“I think that a better solution to taking people’s belongings when they are in need would be to provide accessible toilets and clean washing facilities as well as needle exchanges for those people, so instead of having to take their things because they’re soiled, prevent them from being put in that place to begin with,” one caller said.
Many callers spoke to Mendenhall directly, asking for empathy and transparency.
“I feel so betrayed by a city I used to hold so much admiration for. Mayor Mendenhall, please consider the most vulnerable people in the city and defund the police to provide housing and healthcare to those who need it. Respect and housing should not have to be earned. They are human rights,” said Eva Quintus-Bosz, sophomore studying chemistry and gender studies at the University of Utah.