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SALT LAKE CITY – Dozens of people camped out in front of Washington Square in downtown Salt Lake City to protest the growing number of homeless, a recent shelter closure and lack of resources for the homeless.
They said they will occupy the space for however long it takes.
KSL spent Friday walking around the encampment that’s just a few blocks from the homeless shelter that closed down in November. The group of about 60 was made up of chronically homeless and activists who want to get the word out.
“The thing is we get bitter cold, freezing cold temperatures here,” said Barney Packer, a homeless man sitting on a bench near his tent at Washington Square.
Packer is a lifelong Utahn and a military veteran.
“Yeah, an Army Ranger from '74 to '76,” he said.
He said he’s been in and out of homelessness for a long time.
“It’s not too bad because I’ve got a tent, warm sleeping bag and security all around me,” he said as he motioned to the 20 to 25 other tents set up around his.
Packer chose to make his home on the front lawn of Washington Square, which is where the Salt Lake City and County Building is located.
He said he’d like to see things in the city change.
“It all started with Operation Rio Grande,” Packer said of the multiagency move to improve safety and remove the homeless from the downtown Salt Lake City area. “I was there for a while and I saw what really happened. They took all of our things.”
The “Take Shelter Coalition” is helping to support the growing camp.
“We make sure that everyone coming into the camp is safe and gets resources that they need and that we can provide,” said Finn Epperson-Valum with the coalition.
Members of the volunteer-led group wanted to get elected officials’ attention.
“The problem is evictions, rising rent among so many other things,” he said. “We’re fighting for the people who the system has cast aside."
Friday, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mayor-Elect Erin Mendenhall issued a lengthy joint statement in response to Friday’s activities.
“The city, state of Utah and Salt Lake County have worked in a coordinated and strategic effort for over five years to implement the new Homeless Resource Center model,” the statement said in part.
“It’s a lot of what they’ve been saying in the past,” Epperson-Valum said. “They applaud themselves for what they have done, but what they have done isn’t enough.”
Packer said he will stay at the encampment as long as it takes. For now, he’s not alone.
“We’ll be here until we’re not here,” Epperson-Valum said.
The statement from the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office also mentioned that no cold-weather gear will be taken away from anyone in an active encampment in cold weather.
They also said they attempted to reach out to those organizing the encampment but said there has been no response.
The full joint statement from Biskupski and Mendenhall is included below:
“As the Mayor and Mayor-elect of Salt Lake City, we acknowledge, understand, and share the public’s concern about people sleeping outdoors in winter conditions and their ability to access safe shelter.
“Salt Lake City has been working on and investing in solutions that treat those experiencing homelessness with dignity. It is our goal and responsibility to ensure that everyone is safe from harm. That includes informing Salt Lake County when public health concerns arise.
“A concerted effort has been made to abate these encampments on an ongoing basis throughout the city. The city works in close partnership with the Salt Lake County Health Department to evaluate each encampment on an individual basis and remedy those situations that pose the greatest health and safety risks.
“Part of our efforts include ongoing conversations with people experiencing homelessness through the Community Connection Center team’s outreach work, meeting people where they are at in effort to connect individuals with available services and options for housing.
“In addition to the Community Connection Center and Health Department, our partners include Advantage Services, Odyssey House, Volunteers of America, Catholic Community Services, the Veteran’s Administration and many more. Our Salt Lake City Police, Fire, Community Empowerment, and Communities and Neighborhood Departments have been working as a team along-side our partners to help address concerns we receive from the community.
“During this time of inclement weather, special considerations have been made and no cold-weather gear will be taken from those in an active encampment between November 1 through March 31. The city and our partners have increased our service outreach efforts since late October.
“The city, state of Utah and Salt Lake County have worked in a coordinated and strategic effort for over five years to implement the new Homeless Resource Center model. The new HRCs have capacity of 250, 250 and 300 (Geraldine King, Gail Miller and South Salt Lake respectively) as outlined in State statute.
“In just this fiscal year, Salt Lake City has directed more $1.69 million in federal grants to provide funding for service providers serving more than 3,370 households. The city has also provided $1.25 million in city dollars to service providers to address issues of homelessness and housing in our community. Past city funding has included $650,000 provided to Salt Lake County to expand access to detox beds, funding which was not able to be utilized.
“The city is committed to continuing our efforts. We hope that future conversations will occur with all partners. These are challenges that require meaningful dialogue, support and effort from all of us.”