Homeless Services FAQ
What’s the difference between sheltered and unsheltered homelessness?
In 2019, our community shifted from a co-located sheltering model to multiple scattered site, population specific Homeless Resource Centers. This was in response to the need for greater supportive services and a system-wide focus on getting people moved quickly from shelter and into housing. The state of Utah, Salt Lake County, and Salt Lake City are united in the goal of making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring for anyone in our community who has to experience it.
No two people experience homelessness the same. Some people, after experiencing a housing crisis, will go directly to a homeless resource center and will quickly resolve homelessness on their own or access the housing services available there and will move back into a place of their own within a few weeks. Others decide that shelter doesn’t fit their life, or they don’t feel like they fit into shelter programs and they choose to camp. Some find it difficult to get into shelter, or find it tough to follow the expectations of different shelter programs. In order to make shelters welcoming places, our community’s homeless resource centers operate on a low-barrier model, meaning that some allow pets, some allow partners, and all are open 24/7. None require proof of sobriety before entry, but they do not allow possession of illegal substances on their property.
Why do people camp?
According to the most comprehensive research we have available on encampments, a study completed by HUD in late 2018, unsheltered people form encampments for a variety of reasons but the most common are:
- The individuals feel that shelter options available don’t work for them and they feel a sense of relative safety and community in encampments.
- They are looking for a sense of autonomy and privacy that they don’t think they can get in shelter.
- The individual prioritizes access to illegal substances over shelter services.
Why not just allow people to camp?
Managed encampments have been considered by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, and decided against as an overflow strategy. There are many associated risk factors with this, and is not considered a best practice nationally. At this time the coalition has decided to develop non-congregate overflow shelter spaces to bring people indoors this winter overflow season.
- Clearance with support and resources, which is what we’re attempting to do with the Community Commitment Program, shows promise in reducing on-street camping. This is according to this study done by HUD.
- While all residents of Salt Lake City can sympathize with the desires for community, autonomy, and privacy that many people who camp are looking for, we as a City cannot sacrifice the safety of our neighborhoods when encampments become associated with crime and environmental degradation.
- Understanding the need for both neighborhood safety and help for vulnerable people, the City takes a service-first approach and tries to resolve homeless encampments via homeless outreach before making people move.
- If a camp is relatively small, clean, and law abiding, then the City works with outreach partners alone to get the people in that camp to accept services.
- If a camp is growing, or it includes public health risks, the camp is referred to the County Health Department for a camp abatement. A camp abatement alone is not necessarily a displacement, but it is an opportunity for people living encamped to meet cleanliness standards and to accept the shelter and supportive services made available in our community.
- If a camp is large, includes major public health or safety risks, or is located near something meant to serve other vulnerable populations (like a school or a senior center or a homeless resource center), then the City coordinates intensive outreach projects intended to bring people indoors and then closes that area to camping in partnership with the Salt Lake County Health Department and with ongoing law enforcement presence.
What are the roles of the City, County, and State in response to unsheltered encampments?
The State and Salt Lake County are, as written in state code, responsible to provide services for people experiencing homelessness. Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City participate in a local homeless coordinating committee called the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. This Coalition is made up of government entities, service providers, advocates, and people with lived experience. The Coalition helps coordinate the development of new services provided for people experiencing homelessness, whether that is new shelter, overflow shelter, or other programs that are meant to end homelessness in our community. The Coalition is supported by staff at Salt Lake County.
The Salt Lake County Health Department is charged with protecting public health, and enforces environmental health regulations with regard to on-street camping. Usually, what this looks like is a procedure called a camp abatement, and it requires people to pick up camp and move while all environmental risk factors associated with that camp are removed. This can be human waste, discarded needles, or wet or soiled belongings, as well as abandoned belongings.
One of any city’s most important functions is to keep its residents safe. The City invests millions of tax and grant dollars each year into programs that we know will mitigate or end people’s housing crises, and we do everything we can to encourage people living encamped to come indoors. The City takes in data on encampment concerns coming from our different neighborhoods, and works with partners to coordinate appropriate responses to those encampments. More information on what those responses look like can be found below.
If there are beds available in shelter, should I expect not to see camps in the City?
- Shelter space availability changes throughout each day. Shelter utilization data is a lot like ICU data, in that there’s an “effectively full” rate of about 95% for each HRC. When our shelter utilization is low, the City will take more assertive steps to reduce on-street camping. When shelter utilization is high, the City will still work to resolve camps, but it may take longer to tackle than a quick call to police or a submission on the SLC Mobile app.
What other research or resources are available on this topic?
- The team at Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness stay closely aware of emerging and established best practices for helping people end their housing crises. The following links are some helpful resources that inform our homeless services system and the steps that Salt Lake City takes to respond to unsheltered encampments:
Encampment Impact Mitigation (EIM) FAQ
Occasionally Salt Lake City participates in EIM’s throughout City boundaries, to learn more please click below.
What Is an EIM?
- An EIM is a cleaning event that takes place at a site where people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are congregating for an extended period of time. Camp abatements are carried out in areas that include environmental public health concerns. Salt Lake County Health Department is mandated by law to maintain public health and safety, and this includes the EIM’s that happen throughout the County.
How Does the City or County Health Department Determine Which Camps Need an EIM?
- Once the city or county learns of an encampment, health inspectors visit the area to evaluate whether public and / or environmental health deficiencies would require people to pick up their belongings and move in order to clear away potentially hazardous materials, like human waste or needles. At the same time, outreach workers are sent to the area to engage with anyone who may be experiencing homelessness and in need of services. Reports on each of these encampment areas are brought to a weekly meeting convened by the city. In that meeting a group of internal city departments, county health officials, and outreach partners determine what locations may need this kind of intervention, or what can be cleaned up by simply sending a contracted cleaning crew to pick up litter.
What Happens During an EIM?
- Once a site is determined to be in need of an EIM, outreach workers are notified and asked to visit the campers to offer services to the people who are camping. These services can range from basic need supplies to housing voucher applications. Once outreach workers have made this contact, health dept. and police dept. officials reach out to any remaining campers and provide written notification of the planned EIM ahead of the time that the event is scheduled to begin. On the day of the event, health dept. officials, a cleaning contractor, and city depts. come together at the encampment site. Anyone who hasn’t left on their own is then asked to pack up their belongings and leave the area. Once it is cleared, city teams provide a deep clean to the area, clearing it of any remaining debris or bio-waste. Once this is complete, the teams pick up and move to the next location.
How Is This Different From a Camp Closure?
- An EIM is a cleaning event that is over once crews have finished their work. During the event, people are not allowed to remain in the area that needs to be cleaned, Any ongoing enforcement of the area is minimal. If people often continue to set up camp in the same area after an EIM, the process of evaluation and clean up will begin again and can happen more than once in the same location if conditions begin to deteriorate again. A camp closure would require people to leave the area and include consistent enforcement to ensure that camps are not set up again. A camp closure is something that the community will only undertake if and when sufficient alternatives have been identified, like housing, shelter, or treatment opportunities.
Does an EIM Have Anything To Do With the Enforcing the City's Camping Ordinance?
- It does not. An EIM is a way to ensure the health and cleanliness of a camping hot spot, but does not include citing the campers for violation of the no camping ordinance. Camp cleanings allow the city to keep a camping hot spot maintained without having to proceed to actions that could result in policing or punishing people for being homeless or in poverty.
Why Are The Police Involved?
- Police are involved in EIMs so that they can step in to ensure safety. This is called a “standby assist” and the police are only there to ensure that the event goes safely and smoothly for the staff doing the clean up and for those that are camping. Police are not there to cite people for camping.
What Happens To Belongings That Are Left At The Clean Up Site?
- Any belongings that are left at the site after the warning period is over are considered abandoned and thrown away. Sometimes people may be in possession of items that are hazardous to their health or to the health of anyone who encounters that item (a soiled tent or sleeping bag, for example), and these items can be removed only under the regulatory authority of the health department.
How Can I Help Our Unsheltered Homeless Community?
- On occasion, a well meaning person may drop food off at an encampment where there isn’t sufficient infrastructure in place (like trash cans, bathrooms, or options for refrigeration), and the food ends up spoiling or being tossed in the street. This can lead to the development of some of the environmental concerns that trigger the need for an EIM. There are organizations that provide food, clothing, and other necessities to people living unsheltered. Donating your time or money to those organizations is both helpful to unsheltered people, and helps keep the city clean and safe.