Protesters ‘occupy’ Washington Square, demand resources for Salt Lake City’s homeless, call for an end to ‘police harassment’

Organizers for the Take Shelter Coalition say the ‘occupation’ of Washington Square in downtown SLC is designed to bring attention to the city’s ongoing homeless crisis and to ‘end police harassment’ of the city’s homeless population. Photo:Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Jan. 3, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — A group of organizers of the Take Shelter Coalition, along with a number of homeless people, set up camp Friday in Washington Square in what they say is an “occupation” and a demonstration against police harassment.

The initial demonstration was mounted Friday morning at the City and County Building by the Coalition, which describes itself on Facebook as “a coalition of community leaders and organizers from a wide range of struggles (who are) united with our unsheltered neighbors to demand shelter and dignity for every person forced to live on the streets.”

The problem, according to the Coalition, is that the existing shelters are full and there are no beds available to accommodate an increasing number of homeless people.

Instead, they say, homeless individuals and families are forced to camp out on the street, and the “cops treat camping outdoors as a criminal act.”

Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

The purpose of the “camping occupation” of Washington Square, according to the Facebook post, is to demand:

  • A new shelter open downtown
  • That an equivalent number of beds be made readily available and accessible
  • No arrests, tickets or harassment for campers
  • Change legislation for new centers to have more beds
  • Free public transit fare for all who stay in shelters

One of the Coalition organizers, Finn Epperson-Valum told Gephardt Daily that hundreds of people had used the camp’s facilities since it was set up Friday morning. He said those in immediate need of shelter were able to get warm, get hot food, hot chocolate and coffee. They could also get blankets, gloves, coats, and hand-warmers.

Epperson-Valum said the “occupation” of Washington Square was not only designed to help people most in need, but to also “send the right message to the right people in the City-County building, from city and county officials, to the people up the street who work at the State Capitol.”

“There’s a great sense of camaraderie and solidarity here. And we are feeling hopeful. And we have been beaten down. People have been arrested. People have had their belongings taken by the police. But we know that we can fight and we can win and get some of our demands met, like getting the police to stop taking people’s stuff and breaking down camps.”

According to the Coalition, the police have been removing people’s belongings, and “blankets, sleeping bags, tents, and bikes are all rounded up and placed in trucks headed to the dump.”

For people who are homeless and living on the street, they say, this action by the police makes winter survival that much more difficult.

Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

In light of Friday’s demonstration, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall released a statement.

According to a preface to their statement, on Friday morning, the Mayor and Mayor-elect reached out to the activists on Washington Square to invite them to a meeting that would include Chief Mike Brown and state and county representatives, but the activists did not respond to this request.

According to the statement, the city has been working 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.”

Special considerations

Also, in addition to partnering with numerous agencies in an effort to address the needs of the homeless and the concerns of the community, the statement says:

“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.”

Homeless resource centers

Regarding the new homeless resource centers, which the statement says is the result of over five years of coordinated effort by Salt Lake City and County and the State of Utah:

“The new HRCs have capacity of 250, 250 and 300 (Geraldine King, Gail Miller and South Salt Lake respectively) as outlined in State statute.”

Funding

“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 statement says. “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 statement in its entirety is below:

Joint statement from Mayor Biskupski and Mayor-Elect Mendenhall regarding the protest encampment on Washington Square.

Earlier today, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mayor-Elect Mendenhall reached out to the activists gathered on Washington Square to invite them to a meeting including Chief Mike Brown and representatives from the State and County. Activists did not respond to this request.

This afternoon public safety officials began walking through the encampment with information about city ordinances related to First Amendment demonstrations and use of public spaces.

Below is a statement from Mayor Biskupski and Mayor-Elect Mendenhall:

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.

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