Could legal homeless campgrounds work in Salt Lake City?

Rick Egan and Blake Apgar | The Salt Lake Grandstand

Could legal campgrounds for the homeless be a political solution to the proliferation of makeshift campgrounds across Salt Lake City?

Some policymakers, advocacy groups and candidates for office agree, but the proposal still faces political headwinds.


Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall says the campgrounds could be a useful tool as housing availability and lodging space dwindles, but prefers the state and county to take the lead to do so reach.

While Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson says officials in her administration are in the early stages of exploring a legal camp, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for it at the state level. Utah’s homeless czar Wayne Niederhauser and his Office of Homeless Services reject that notion.

But what do these legalized campsites actually look like? what do they offer And how do they work?

We checked out one in Denver this year. We saw that.


The nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative runs a program called Safe Outdoor Spaces in the Mile High City. It provides a clean, safe area for Coloradans affected by homelessness to leave their belongings and get a night’s sleep.


The idea is to provide a dignified alternative to sleeping on the street. The program, a partnership between the nonprofit and Denver, serves about 150 people at three temporary campgrounds. That year, the program had a budget of about $5 million.

Safe Outdoor Spaces opened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult to set up communal housing as physical distancing and other health protocols became concerns. Campgrounds are still important, says Jennifer Forker, spokeswoman for the Colorado Village Collaborative, because they offer more flexibility than shelter. There is no need to leave the community during the day.

Residents can clean up in portable showers and do laundry in facilities provided by another nonprofit organization, Showers For All. The Colorado Village Collaborative is trying to raise money for their own showers.


The campgrounds encourage a sense of community, says Forker. Even if residents move to permanent housing, some will still return to see their friends. “It’s great the community that develops when people live together,” she says, “desperate people who didn’t know each other before, who take care of each other.”


Legal homeless camps are likely to be a topic of conversation during next year’s Salt Lake City mayoral campaign. Former Mayor Rocky Anderson has vowed to open one or more camps with toilets, showers, laundry, food and social workers to quell street camping.

Mendenhall was once skeptical about sanctioned camping and said she feared the facilities would do little to affect the number of those sleeping outside.

But she seems to be warming to the idea.

“We agree that housing and shelter opportunities need to be expanded and recognize the capacity constraints in terms of the housing market and the number of existing shelters. A well-run, sanctioned camp can be an excellent addition to the system, but must be managed by state and national partners. As with every aspect of the state’s homelessness crisis, no city can handle a project like this on its own without additional support.”

– Erin Mendenhall

Niederhauser and his office, on the other hand, would prefer to see a village with shed-like housing offering non-communal living in more permanent structures.


West Side City Council members Alejandro Puy and Victoria Petro-Eschler have publicly championed the camps, saying their constituents are weary at their constant concern over illegal camping. According to Puy, a non-profit organization, not the city, should be responsible for running a legal camp.

In Denver, campgrounds are often met with fears early on, but many neighbors have come to embrace them. Sites are surrounded by privacy netting, and the Colorado Village Collaborative is committed to being good neighbors.

Despite fears that the gathering of homeless residents would lead to rampant crime, an analysis by The Colorado Sun found that crime does indeed occur in the areas where the camps operate. Could legal homeless campgrounds work in Salt Lake City?

Justin Scacco

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