Operation Rio Grande, along with the closing of the downtown Road Home shelter, has shone an unflattering light on the Salt Lake City Police Department in recent years.
Questions have also been raised about an overnight confrontation between activist group Operation Take Shelter and police in Washington Square on Jan. 3. The activist group is asking for more beds and “no arrests, tickets or harassment for campers” from the police department, according to the KUTV report. Additionally, the group is calling for more availability of social services, leaving the city’s public servants frustrated.
Cleanup of campsites has been delegated to the Salt Lake County Health Department, says Jessica Waters, a social work manager employed by the SLCPD. In most cases, a 24-hour notice is provided, and social workers are asked to extend services before the cleanup begins. Same-day cleanup is only initiated if there is an immediate health risk.
Officers are also asked to help facilitate the cleanup in order to make sure no one is harmed in the process, according to Waters. Generally, however, police make an effort to remain non-participants.
Social workers also try to educate the department on the needs of those experiencing homelessness and ask that they remind their clients to grab important documents and medications.
“We are asked to be on-site for many different reasons,” says Waters. “Anything from offering services before a camp cleanup to extending a hand to those in crisis that have come in contact with 911 on a recurring basis.”
This can help relieve some pressure on police officers and keeps individuals from flooding emergency lines, adds Waters.
Sgt. Scott Stuck of the SLCPD emphasizes that “we train our officers to have empathy toward the individual they’re working with.”
Stuck states officers can develop some fatigue due to the public calling dispatchers for concerns such as “someone dirty at a public park.”
“It’s a public park, and [the homeless] have just as much of a right to be there as anyone else, but since it was called in, [officers] are now required to follow up on that situation,” says Stuck.
Often, this can lead those experiencing homelessness to feel harassed and forced out of a public space.
The community is concerned and has asked for more involvement from social workers. Waters says police involvement at the moment of a cleanup can make a situation worse.
“It hurts the relationship with our clients … [and] the client doesn’t want to discuss housing options at that time,” explains Waters.
Waters expresses concern that social workers need to be a safe and trusted entity for the community, and being present in a highly emotional situation can lead to feelings of resentment.
“We are unable to stop a cleanup if the Health Department has declared it a health risk,” says Waters, noting the Health Department has been willing to work with them by delaying a cleanup if the client has accepted services.
Brandon Kitchen, a former resident of The Road Home, served a 21-year sentence in federal prison out-of-state before having his release papers transferred to Utah in anticipation of family support. That help fell through, and Kitchen landed in the arms of The Road Home.
Fred Ross, then deputy chief of SLCPD, approached Kitchen shortly after his arrival at The Road Home and asked him about his story. Shortly thereafter, Kitchen was offered employment and encouraged to be self-sufficient. This helped Kitchen exit The Road Home and move into transitional housing before being able to afford a place of his own.
“There were several officers who took their personal time to drive me to work until I was able to obtain a bike and get myself there,” says Kitchen.
Kitchen acknowledges that he had a leg up, however. Drugs or alcohol abuse did not complicate his situation.
“I absolutely feel like anyone staying at the shelter has the resources available to them. However, there were a lot of people who wrestled with things that I didn’t, including drug abuse and mental illness,” he says. “There is no one silver bullet. I think resources do work, but being fluid and open to different ideas is more important than anything.”
Kitchen says he isn’t a fan of the Housing First program, which prioritizes housing over medical behaviors and mental health, and feels it’s not for everyone.
“If you’re able-bodied, you should be able to work hard and support yourself. Of course, it’s hard, but it can be done,” he says.
Kitchen says his overall experience with The Road Home and SLCPD was a positive one.
“I don’t think there’s a single police officer out there that couldn’t be approached on that level and asked for help. If you genuinely want to get out of your situation, they will help direct you to the resources you need to succeed,” says Kitchen.