Officials in Salt Lake City are mystified by the disappearance of hundreds of homeless people who have been living on city streets. The areas around the downtown emergency shelter have traditionally been the location for encampments, but recently, nearly all the previous dwellers have vanished. Some people are blaming it on a recent law enforcement action, but police chief Mike Brown and others wonder where the people could have gone.
Brown had visited parks and the Jordan River where homeless camps previously existed, and Sergeant Brandon Shearer has been canvassing the region from helicopter but there is no trace of the people who’ve previously lived there. When asked what he thought had happened Shearer said, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
A few years ago, Utah claimed that it had won the war on homelessness. John Stewart ran a story called “The Homeless Homed,” but reports now indicate that the initial enthusiasm was overblown. Liberals say that the right-leaning Mormons in the state legislature are more prone to rely on non-profit groups rather than legislation to help homeless people.
However, many of the people who were on the street were there because of drug problems or mental illness. Some were just victims of a terrible lack of work under the Obama administration where unemployment rates didn’t reflect when people just stopped looking for jobs.
Although the city established a housing program that got some people off the streets, higher rents and steep regulations against small businesses have made finding work and keeping a roof over their head difficult for about 2,200 people in Salt Lake City.
The resulting residents had moved downtown where the chance of food and temporary shelter is available. However, the Road Home shelter, located in the now disused warehouse district, had been the scene of a number of violent crimes.
Police killed an attacker wielding a metal rod last year, and there were three killings this summer which prompted an attack against a homeless man. To curtail the crime, Utah filled the area with cops. Mike Brown dryly noted, “You throw 150 cops in there, it’s going to ruin the party,” referring to the $67 million public safety initiative.
Now, less than one month later, the homeless have vanished from downtown. During the operation, about 1,200 people were arrested on drug charges and officials promised to find treatment, housing, and work for the rest of the population. However, 900 of those arrested for drugs were back on the streets a short time later.
People are speculating that the homeless moved on to some other town. Some think all those people found jobs, and still others say that the people must have dispersed into residential neighborhoods.
Homeless woman Brema Jones told reporters at Pioneer Park that the police action wasn’t working. “It’s not helping druggies, not getting them into rehab. Everybody is spreading out,” she claimed.
Some of the drug users released from jail have been reported at the airport or living in empty fields west of Salt lake. Activists are blasting the Mayor and policy workers for the latest law enforcement action. Some say the only thing that happened was that the people were scattered.
Everyone in the city is anxious now that winter is approaching and only a few of those released have returned to the shelter. Zach Curry, who has been homeless for 10 years, said that the police action “cleaned up the place.”
Although liberal activists claim that the tactics were brutal, Curry explained that they were needed. “People were committing suicide on drugs left and right. It was getting a bad rep for Salt Lake City,” he said. He sees the police presence as a challenge, “but it’s got to be done. That’s what a lot of us think about it.”
The city has erected a 10 foot chain link fence around the shelter with flood lights. Leaders plan to open three more shelters like it in the area. For now, no one knows where the vast majority of the people went, but they are welcome to return, city officials said.