City officials say the 500 West Islands need to undergo park maintenance and “rejuvenation” before the onset of winter.
There is a tree-lined public square in the middle of 500 West behind the old Rio Grande train station.
The middle islands are home to many of Salt Lake City’s unsheltered residents – but on Monday, residents were told to pack up their belongings and tall chain-link fences were erected around the middle islands. On Wednesday morning there was no tent to be found in the median strip or on the adjacent sidewalks.
The Tribune reached out to Andrew Johnston, director of homeless policy and outreach for Salt Lake City, to ask why the fences were put up.
The islands were fenced off because the city’s public lands department planned some cleanup and repair work, Johnston said. He noted that the trees on the strip of land provided needed shade for the city’s unprotected population in the summer. With the weather cooling and winter overflow shelters opening soon, this seems like the best time to start, Johnston said.
The fences have angered both advocates and residents who are tired of moving and packing up their belongings and don’t know where else to go. The housing crisis has not yet been solved and the waiting lists for affordable housing are long. One woman described having to essentially “stalk” service providers just to get assigned a caseworker. Solutions – including a tiny home village and an emergency shelter – are underway – but people are losing hope.
What work is being carried out?
Public Lands plans to repair sprinklers and lighting and clean up trash, medical waste and needles, said Mia McCain, the department’s communications and engagement manager. Crews will also work to bring the area’s turf back to life. The work will be carried out over the next 90 days. “We’ll also use it as an opportunity to do additional work,” McCain said, “and kind of rejuvenate the elements that make it this green space, whether it’s a park or not.”
Where will unprotected people go?
“We still have a camping ban in the city,” Johnston said.
Until the fences come down in December, “I hope everyone can get in by then,” Johnston said. “I hope it’s not a problem because we have these other options available to us.”
Mayor Erin Mendehnall recently announced that the city, in collaboration with the state, will open an emergency shelter on property at the corner of 300 South and 600 West, near the Utah Transit Authority Central Station. The space accommodates up to 50 people in “pod-like” structures with electricity and lockable doors.
At Thursday’s press conference, she noted that the new shelter is not a solution for everyone, but “it is the start of a new service model that we have never seen before in the state of Utah, and it is in addition to 600 shelter beds.” , which we will open in November with the winter overflow plan.”
Unprotected community and advocates are angry
On Wednesday morning, a Tribune reporter headed south of 500 West Islands and found a couple with a tarp on a grass verge just a block away at the entrance to Interstate-15 at 400 South.
Angela Appleby, 49, and her husband Andrew Hansen said they had been pushed south into the islands from an area near North Temple and were preparing to move again in the afternoon.
Appleby said she has been homeless in Salt Lake City for nearly a decade but hopes to get into an apartment soon. She said police were respectful when they asked her to move earlier this week, but she didn’t want to keep pushing her belongings through city streets.
“We got this nice big tent, but we sold it because we are manifesting housing,” Appleby said.
A little further down, Donald Vogt, known as “The First Cowboy,” sat in a median with all of his belongings packed up.
“I am a senior, I am disabled and handicapped. I have melanomas in both legs, ankles, heels and feet. “I had two heart attacks and live on welfare,” said Vogt.
“How come I’m a criminal because I’ve been evicted from where I live and am forced to live on the streets trying to survive? But if I put up a tent, I’m breaking the law,” Vogt said.
“There is nowhere to go and just going to the toilet is a chore.”
Advocates for unsheltered Salt Lake City residents say the constant pressure to move their belongings is overwhelming for many people.
“They are constantly building around them and in front of them and not for them,” said attorney Ty Bellamy. “Do you know how hurtful this is to these boys?”
While Public Lands is tasked with restoring 500 West Islands, the areas have few park-like features, Bellamy noted. There are no drinking fountains or swings. “No one but the homeless gathers on this grass,” she said. “We have no space in the emergency shelters. We don’t have overflow [shelters] still open because it’s not winter yet. So where will they go?”