Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Delilah Baker sat on a bench outside the Rio Grande Depot with what was left of her few belongings beside her and watched the remaining police cars pull away.
"How do they expect you to get on your feet when they keep pushing you down?" she asked. "It's a lose-lose situation."
Unsheltered people camping near the Rio Grande Depot were notified Tuesday morning over a speaker that they had an hour to remove their belongings and leave. Within the hour, bulldozers and dumpsters had arrived.
"I think, traditionally, we do try — most folks at least try not to disrupt any of the street activities, the camping and that during the Point in Time count," said Andrew Johnston, the homeless policy director for Salt Lake City. "We hadn't planned on anything from starting today."
The abatement or cleaning was scheduled to occur last week but couldn't be completed then, according to Johnston.
"When they were down there trying to do the cleaning, they were disrupted by some other folks so they couldn't get to that area," he said. "They came back today to try and finish some of it."
"We do cleanings regularly around the Rio Grande area because we have a lot of folks who camp or come in and stay there and we need to clean up a lot of the trash and other things around there" more often, Johnston added.
But homeless advocates say the cleaning was a failed commitment on the city's behalf, ahead of the Point in Time count, which is an annual attempt by cities across the country to understand how many people in their jurisdictions are experiencing homelessness, or are unsheltered, on a single night in January.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development orders then provides data regarding sheltered and unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness, by household type and subpopulation, using numbers from the overnight headcount.
"Salt Lake City is not acting in good faith and they're putting unsheltered lives at risk with their thoughtless actions," said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah. "2nd and 2nd condemns the cruelty of Salt Lake City's cruel evictions and confiscation of personal survival gear."
Tuesday's cleaning resulted in the removal of approximately 20 tents, some of which were filled with sleeping bags or other gear. Among the items confiscated or destroyed were bought by the coalition, based on Salt Lake City's commitment, advocates say.
"If you weren't in it, they're smashing it," said Baker.
One unsheltered woman said she was inside her tent and sleeping bag when a bulldozer lifted it and placed it in a dumpster.
"I was screaming," she told advocates.
The items were purchased and distributed by the coalition ahead of the freezing temperatures. The temperatures pose an increased risk to people who are experiencing homelessness with the possibility of developing fatal cases of hypothermia or frostbite.
"You're paying police officers to stand guard while people's homes are being stolen. It is theft of property — and not just their property, but property that the community has come together, has sacrificed their time and their money just to support people who are out here, because they're not getting the support that the state or the city are providing," said Carl Moore of Our Unsheltered Relatives, another advocacy group that provides resources for people experiencing homelessness.
Even with increased capacity at area shelters throughout Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Millcreek, some unsheltered individuals will still find themselves on the streets. The 2nd and 2nd Coalition had begun hosting movie nights at the First United Methodist Church in December, when temperatures got near freezing, to provide shelter to people still on the streets.
The church and its advocates have continued to meet its capacity of 85 people, even turning people away each night. The coalition calls area shelters to locate beds whenever possible; when none are available, unsheltered individuals are given survival gear.
"Theft is one thing, but when you steal someone's means of survival, that is essentially kind of issuing like a death wish on the people," Moore added.
The cold stretch that has swept across the state could remain in place into next week, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. The forecast includes a higher probability for precipitation to return, along with below-normal temperatures to close out January and start February.
In a series of tweets Sunday night, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said police and firefighters would be looking at getting unsheltered people indoors because of the low temperatures. The sentiment was quickly disregarded by 2nd and 2nd Coalition members, as well as unsheltered individuals present Tuesday.
Several unsheltered individuals flatly denied any additional help from Salt Lake City police or firefighters helping them access shelter.
"You're trying to help people by telling people to go places that are already full, or that they cannot go to, or they cannot get to. They don't supply anything, they personally don't supply anything. They don't drive people to the shelters," said Moore.
The mayor's statement was explained by Johnston, who indicated that emergency personnel mostly worked to inform unsheltered individuals about the upcoming weather conditions.
"We don't have the police transporting everybody to the various locations. We're relying on the existing system that's been set up for the wintertime to do that," he said. "We are trying to get make sure people are aware about coming weather conditions that would impact them.
"That's really a huge piece: to make sure people aren't caught unaware out there. There are some folks, there are some folks who don't want to come into their shelters for various reasons and it's OK, for the personal reasons."