City Creek Canyon • John and Alma have been down on their luck.
Homeless and unemployed, the couple was running into dead ends. Salt Lake City has shelters, but John and Alma aren't there in part because of the other transients.
"They are smoking in your face. It's disgusting," Alma said Monday. "They sell drugs right in front of your face ... and we don't do [drugs]."
Then a few days ago, the couple arrived at City Creek Canyon. It's quiet and scenic, and their blue tent fit nicely amid the trees and shrubbery, away from and almost out of sight of the road.
But they're not the only ones. There are plenty of other camps in the canyon and responding to a variety of resident complaints ranging from aggressive panhandling to burglary to the transients using the private property of neighboring homes as restrooms Salt Lake City police arrived Monday morning to turn them out and guide them back to downtown shelters.
"We have to uphold the law, and we can't pick and choose how we uphold it," said Salt Lake City police detective Rob Bruno, talking to John and Alma outside their tent. Theirs is the ninth site that police came across Monday morning in the canyon, where it is illegal to camp. Officers moved into the popular hiking area above the Utah Capitol to give transients 24 hours notice to leave. They'll be cited if they don't.
The transients often leave their campsites early in the morning and don't return until late at night, said Detective Charli Goodman, but in those cases the officers leave a clearly stated paper notice.
Police spokesman Dennis McGowan said the officers aim to help, not displace. Bruno and Goodman explained to John and Alma what resources are available to them and encouraged them to make use of them.
"We want to provide them with long-term solutions," Goodman said, so they can improve their lives and not simply return to the canyon later.
Sometimes transients follow through and seek help, while others will just set up camp elsewhere.
Lowell Bodily, an environmental health specialist with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, seeks out camps like John and Alma's every week and aided police in leaving notices. He advised the couple to take the officers' advice, or they'll have to go through the eviction process all over again.
The canyon is of particular concern to the health department since it is also a protected watershed. Authorities plan to return Tuesday morning to remove all of the trash, debris and any leftover personal effects they find and dispose of them.
The transients also light campfires and don't always extinguish them properly, Goodman said, increasing the risk that the canyon, which is lined with houses, could erupt into a wildfire.
"We want to prevent something catastrophic," Goodman said.
The canyon's single, narrow road is popular among hikers, bikers and dog walkers, and part of the point of the weeklong eviction operation is to preserve the environment and ensure it is safe for recreation, according to a Salt Lake City police news release. Transients reportedly have been poaching deer and rabbits, and police have fielded at least one report of a transient threatening a jogger with a knife, Goodman said.
Transient camps in the foothills are nothing new. Each year, as the weather warms up, transients steer clear of shelters and live instead on riverbanks and in back alleys, abandoned buildings and the foothills.
Some camps are fairly permanent, including one close to City Creek Canyon, on a hillside near Victory Road and Beck Street. During a previous operation similar to that on Monday, health department spokesman Nicholas Rupp recalled counting plenty of campsites in that area.
Salt Lake City officials created HOST in 2011 to help the homeless by promoting social services over giving directly to panhandlers. The organization's first big push was the proliferation of the red meters around the city, where people can donate their change to programs instead of giving it to pleading people holding cardboard signs. The Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation administers the donations.
Last November, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said his officers, acting through HOST, had reached out to more than 600 people in the past year, half of whom were referred to area services.
Several other agencies, including the Fourth Street Clinic and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, are also participating in this week's operation, according to the police news release.