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SLC mayor defends messaging on no camping which led to confusion for some officers

homless camp taken down 073021.jpg
Friday, July 30, 2021 a homeless encampment was dismantled. (Photo: Courtesy Robin Pendergrast)

In the past, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has said she didn't intend to enforce the city's no-camping ordinance over concerns of criminalizing homelessness.

But at a news conference Thursday, the mayor announced the city is beginning to target certain homeless camps for extra enforcement. Mendenhall said those camps had grown too large and were impacting public safety.

One of those is the encampment on Rio Grande Street which has now been broken up, leaving the street much emptier and cleaner. 2News spotted several police vehicles Wednesday afternoon patrolling the area.

But complaints about large camps have been pouring in for months and, it turns out, some police officers were confused about what to do with them.

In an email July 14 from Mendenhall to Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, the mayor wrote, “It’s come to my attention that some police officers are telling members of the public that they cannot address illegal camping in park strips because there is a directive from me or my office to not enforce our City ordinance. Let me be clear -- I have given no such direction nor would it be within my scope to do so.”

The mayor went on to say that criminal activity should be dealt with.

“While the City does not intend to criminalize the status of being homeless, criminal activity is a different matter and I expect it to be addressed appropriately, including possible citations or arrest if warranted,” Mendenhall wrote.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, 2News asked Mendenhall if she should have been clearer on her messaging or acted earlier on the enforcement of the city’s no-camping ordinance.

“No, absolutely not,” Mendenhall said.

The mayor said things have changed since the spring, including new data in May that showed a need for 300 beds to give everyone who wants one a place to sleep.

“That’s new information for us,” said Mendenhall.

She said the city is working with a coalition and other partners to identify and acquire those beds by December 1, after which the city can “begin more widespread consistent enforcement of its camping ordinance.”

Pandora Holder, an employee at Oasis Stage Werks on Rio Grande Street, had complained to the city for months about the situation there. She feels better about it now.

“It’s so nice to come to work and not have to worry about it,” Holder told 2News Thursday following the mayor’s news conference. “For a long time there I was terrified almost to come into work every morning because I’d come in so early.”

Asked if police will remain in the Rio Grande neighborhood for the long term, Mendenhall told 2News, “you can ask Chief Brown about what that strategy is. I’m not directing the police operations on that.”

2News checked with Salt Lake City Police. A spokesman late Thursday said the department will put resources in the Rio Grande neighborhood and other areas throughout the city as needs require.