Mystery in Salt Lake City: where have hundreds of homeless people gone?
Following a police operation, even officers seem puzzled by the whereabouts of hundreds of people who lived around a downtown emergency shelter
The streets around Salt Lake Citys downtown emergency shelter have long been home to hundreds of homeless people. In recent weeks, though, nearly all seem to have vanished following a police operation. Local residents are mystified as to where theyve gone.
The Salt Lake City police chief, Mike Brown, said he had visited parks and the Jordan river, which threads its way to the Great Salt Lake and has homeless camps dotted along its banks, but he hadnt seen an influx from downtown. Sgt Brandon Shearer has been up in a police helicopter looking for camps and seemed equally perplexed when asked where the people had gone. I dont know, he said. Thats a good question.
Advocates, for their part, fear a humanitarian crisis is brewing.
The unfolding drama is all the more remarkable considering that several years ago, national media reports published claims by Utah that it had won the war on homelessness there, at least when it came to housing those who had been outside the longest. Jon Stewart ran a laudatory piece titled The homeless homed. But the picture wasnt quite that simple.
While the countrys most prominent homeless crises are in coastal cities New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles the mountain-ringed capital of the Mormon church has also long struggled to house or, in the view of some, has politely ignored its homeless population. The Republican legislature in Utah is fond of the philosophy of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and struggling not-for-profit groups pick up the slack when it comes to homelessness funding.
Rather than ending homelessness, the city in fact housed a subset of its homeless residents, an important step but only an intermediary one in its alleviation efforts. Since then, as rents have risen and the minimum wage has remained stagnant, more and more families have found themselves on the street. A count last year found about 2,200 people in the region in total on any one night.
In recent months, Salt Lake City has been convulsed by the situation around the downtown shelter, called the Road Home, located in a onetime warehouse district now host to high-end condos and shops.
Even though officials say most of those living there are blameless forced there by economic circumstances, mental health issues or opioid addictions the area has been prone to violence. Police shot a teenager wielding a metal broomstick handle last year, and there were three unrelated killings in July and early August, one involving an unprovoked attack on a homeless man with a paving stone.
As a result, in mid-August, Utah flooded the area with law enforcement officers as part of a two-year, $67m public-safety operation. You throw 150 cops in there, its going to ruin the party, Brown, the police chief, said dryly.
Cue the abrupt dispersal of many of the downtown homeless residents to parts unknown. More than 1,200 people have been arrested, over half on drug charges, according to police, but 900 were later released to the streets. Officials leading the operation pledged to provide help for homeless residents in the form of treatment, housing and jobs. But in the weeks after the launch, municipal and state officials could only line up 37 treatment beds.