The case for, against a sanctioned tent city for Salt Lake’s homeless

Editor’s note: Year after year, public camping and homelessness has persisted as an issue in Utah’s capital city — made even more complicated by the pandemic. The Deseret News looked to Austin, Texas, in search of both short- and long-term solutions. This is the second of a two-part series.

AUSTIN, Texas — Donald Montgomery goes by “Hippie,” a nickname he said was given to him by some cowboy friends of his.

He grew up on a farm in Missouri, and knows how to ride, rope and shoot. But he said the nickname “Hippie” fits him, based on his belief in freedom and community.

Montgomery’s long hair spilled out from beneath his tattered white cowboy hat, wisping gently in the breeze blowing from a fan plugged in on his own makeshift porch. The front of his porch was shaded by tarps hung up in front of his canvas tent, made out of a portable shed from Harbor Freight.

The fan didn’t help much in the 90-degree Texas heat, radiating off of the paved parking lot where Montgomery and about 150 other individuals experiencing homelessness camp in a state-sanctioned tent city on the outskirts of Austin — recently named by a vote of its residents Esperanza Community.

A Texas Highway Patrol cruiser rolls through Camp Esperanza homeless camp inAustin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

A Texas Highway Patrol cruiser rolls through Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“It’s for hope. It’s for freedom,” Montgomery said of esperanza, the Spanish word for hope. “This place has a mission, and the mission is to get the heck out of here. It’s supposed to be a transitional living center and a one-stop source for resources to try to blunt poverty a little bit, and maybe reduce homelessness as far as possible.”

The camp has a messy history.

It was born out of political conflicts between liberal Austin leaders and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over on-street camping laws. Abbott established the camp last year on a Texas Department of Transportation plot off of Highway 183 in the southeast Austin neighborhood of Montopolis, near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Overnight, the parking lot transformed into an alternative for campers living beneath freeway overpasses.

That was about a year ago. There was talk of state officials setting up shelter services there, but that never transpired. What it’s become since is a case study in what happens when a plot of land is simply set aside for the homeless to camp.

Though its origin is politically messy and far from perfect, the nonprofit the Other Ones Foundation has since stepped in and helped manage the encampment to function more like a neighborhood, lauding it as a “transitional” solution for homeless individuals who haven’t yet navigated the long and often bureaucratic journey into a home.

The Other Ones Foundation became a crucial third party to help manage the tent community, as well as provide services from shower facilities to on-site social work and case management.

Max Moscoe, community engagement coordinator for the foundation, made it clear the foundation doesn’t set rules, but rather facilitates and mediates conversations to help residents manage and set rules themselves.

Erica Soto speaks about her living conditions in a tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

Erica Soto speaks about her living conditions in a tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I’ve said this 100 times, and I’m going to say it 100 more,” Moscoe said. “We don’t work for the state. We don’t work for the city. We work for people experiencing homelessness.”

The Other Ones Foundation has sought to simply help Esperanza Community and its residents manage themselves. Recently, the Esperanza Community held its own election to select members of a leadership committee, who then vote on issues — from naming the camp Esperanza, to solving day-to-day conflicts between camp residents.

“We’re out here acting in partnership with resident-elected community leadership to function as stewards at the camp,” Moscoe said.

In recent interviews with the Deseret News, many homeless individuals camping on the streets of Salt Lake City — facing looming camp cleanups — question why they can’t just be allowed an established place to pitch their tents.

Many are reluctant to enter shelters out of fear of crowds or COVID-19, or are just plain turned off by the structure and rules of a shelter environment.

A Salt Lake County Health Department official, Dale Keller, manager of the county’s environmental health bureau, even told the Deseret News he’d “love it” if there was an established camping area.

To those campers who ask where they can go instead — especially those campers who avoid shelters because of addiction or mental health problems and aren’t ready for treatment — Keller said he’s been at a loss for answers.

“It’s a great question,” Keller told the Deseret News in September. “And quite frankly … there isn’t a good response to that.”

A homeless man sleeps on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Tuesday published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.

A homeless man sleeps on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute recently published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall — like many Utah politicians before her — are reluctant to entertain the concept of a sanctioned camping area, calling it a “genie” that can’t be “put back in the bottle,” and one that doesn’t give the homeless population the “dignity” and services they need to get out of homelessness.

That’s why Mendenhall would rather turn her eye toward a planned tiny home community — after a successful Community First! Village in Austin — seeing it as a more dignified solution for Salt Lake City’s chronically homeless.

But a master planned tiny home village like Community First! — which so far has a price tag of about $45 million, and took years to build due to zoning and NIMBY (not in my backyard) issues — is no short-term solution.

And with on-street camping already happening year after year in Salt Lake City — many tents continuing to crop up daily west of the Rio Grande — the question remains: What happens in the meantime, particularly next summer?

This fall, Salt Lake City and county officials and service providers worked together to provide intensive social outreach for those living on the streets, but finding housing, shelter or treatment for this population — which isn’t always willing — has been difficult. As snow falls — and COVID-19 complicates shelter capacities — officials have increasingly turned to using hotels to fill the gaps.

This still hasn’t stopped camping from happening.

To the campers living in Austin’s Esperanza Community, the sanctioned camping area is at least a better immediate alternative than camping under overpasses. And to the nonprofit that helps them, it provides a temporary place of transition for those unwilling to live in a shelter or receive drug treatment, or those caught in the complicated bureaucracy of getting into supportive housing.

And to them, it brings some homeless out of the shadows, potentially saving lives.

Erica Soto sits in her tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

Erica Soto sits in her tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Tent living

Montgomery wiped sweat from his forehead as he nestled a green and black guitar in his lap and began strumming. His neighbor’s dog, Jack, at times howled along.

“Hey everybody, I gotta go,” Montgomery sang, “But where I’m leaving to, I don’t even know. So pour me another shot, make it the best you got. I gotta go.”

That verse, Montgomery said, reflects a time in his life when he didn’t know what was coming next. He had come to Austin, where he had planned to work as an EMT. But that didn’t work out. The state of Texas didn’t recognize his license. So he said he delved into the other “interests in my life”: performing music and working as an IT professional in tech support. But over time, Montgomery said he “just ended up having to file disability, and that pretty well (meant) the end of my working life.”

Eventually, Montgomery landed in Esperanza. He calls himself “just not the shelter type.”

“I’ve been here 10 months, which is about eight months more than I expected,” he said.

Though he said he’d eventually love to live in a “small trailer out in the woods somewhere,” Montgomery said he’s found a new sense of purpose at Esperanza Community, where he said he’s worked as somewhat of a “camp medic” helping residents with dog bites, spider bites and rashes, as well as delivering food on his bike.

He was also appointed the “liaison” between the Other Ones Foundation and camp residents to help mediate issues.

“I don’t know, I’m getting pushed into something here, I’m not sure what,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind being able to get a living wage out of doing this kind of homeless work. Goodness knows I know it’s there.”

Montgomery said he’s found a sense of community at Esperanza, where he said good neighbors make all the difference. And although life at the camp isn’t all rosy — with “merciless” heat and “brutal” windstorms — he said “if you come off the street or out of an abusive relationship or something like that, it’s at least a good step sideways.”

“We have a very important answer here — very important,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been dreaming we could bottle this and export it. Because again, it’s a work in progress and we’re far from perfect, but we’re as good as it gets.

“And we’re getting better every single day, courtesy of the foundation. If you could just get your people out of the weather, that’s the biggest step, one of the biggest steps. And then perhaps a little hot food in them. … Anybody that’s going to recover can start there.”

Esperanza has by no means solved public camping in Austin. Beneath freeway overpasses, tents and trash persist. But to Montgomery, an established camping area is better than the alternative — what he called “a sea of trash.”

Donald “Hippie” Montgomery uses a bicycle to deliver supplies to residents at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

Donald “Hippie” Montgomery uses a bicycle to deliver supplies to residents at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I’m a hippie, right? I believe in freedom, right? But I don’t believe people have a right to just spoil the landscape that way,” he said. “It’s literally, I think, a safety relief valve for the problems that were really starting to get really bad underneath the bridges and in the parks and such.”

He also sees it as an alternative to shelter or housing with strict rules, for a population that desires more “latitude” in living, and helps them “catch their breath” before trying to “return to society.”

“It’s not a very capable population out here or they wouldn’t be here,” he said. “My tagline on that is, ‘We’re here because we’re not all there.’ I have to look in the mirror and wonder where I’m not, but anyway.”

It may not be the answer, but it is an answer, Montgomery said.

“The question boils down to: ‘What do we owe the homeless?’” he asked. “My take is we have a civic and a religious duty to help those less fortunate.”

Is it “to get them out of the rain? Probably. Food? Generally, particularly if you’re a Christian of any kind. Electricity? I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “Running water? Maybe.”

A man works near his tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

A man works near his tent at Camp Esperanza homeless camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Case for a camp

Austin and Salt Lake City share political similarities. Both cities are a liberal island of blue amid a red sea of a conservative state, and homelessness has become what one Austin nonprofit official described as a “political football” between Republicans and Democrats.

But it doesn’t have to be.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere in the U.S. right now where homelessness hasn’t somehow become a politicized topic,” said Moscoe.

“Which, to me, is ridiculous because it’s not a political topic. … It’s a humanitarian crisis.”

Moscoe said when Texas’ governor established the sanctioned camping area, it was far from ideal.

“We’re standing on basically a large slab of asphalt, which gets incredibly hot in the summer, and when we got here there was not enough power for residents, there was very little running water, and no hygiene facilities or case management,” Moscoe said, describing how the Other Ones Foundation has since helped install power to campsites, helped set up shower trailers, laundry facilities and a day shelter with air conditioning, where people can receive case management.

While there are “a lot of pluses,” to having a low-barrier sanctioned area for camping, Moscoe said there were more “minuses” early on because of the lack of infrastructure.

“If we could have done it over and we could have been given two months to come out here and set this up with lean-tos for tents and electricity for every campsite … then I think it would really be only pluses,” Moscoe said.

Now, he said, “you have people who are able to live safely and live in a dignified way, where they have some autonomy and some freedom, which a traditional homeless shelter doesn’t offer as much of.”

Obviously, Moscoe said actually housing the homeless — like in Community First! Village — is the best solution. But he said a sanctioned camping area is an “integral part,” but only one part of a spectrum of solutions the homeless population needs, depending on where they are in their individual “journeys.”

“Although there are a lot of plusses with this model, it is not the solution or the only solution,” he said. “We need permanent supportive housing for people to move into.

“But the journey from living in a tent to living in permanent supportive housing is a very long, difficult, bureaucratic journey, and people need to be able to have a safe and dignified way to walk that path. And I think this is a really great model for that.”

Moscoe said having a sanctioned place for the homeless to go could be drawing those who have been “hiding in the woods” and could be “dying alone.”

“If people are not offered a dignified and safe way to live during that journey, people who could have made it into housing are either going to stay homeless, at best, or die because they don’t have the resources they need to walk that walk,” Moscoe said.

Alan Graham, CEO and founder of Community First! Village, left, clowns around with resident William Langley in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday Oct 20, 2020.

Alan Graham, CEO and founder of Community First! Village, left, clowns around with resident William Langley in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Out of sight and mind

Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes — the nonprofit that built Community First! Village, the master planned tiny home village that Mendenhall wants to model a Salt Lake City tiny home community after — said he has nothing but respect for the Other Ones Foundation and what its doing to make a bad situation better at Esperanza Community.

But he doesn’t agree that a sanctioned camping area is an acceptable solution.

“What happens is when you move people into that environment, they become out of sight and out of mind to the general population,” he said. “Then people forget about the dignity of the human person. Because there’s nothing about that environment — all due respect to (the Other Ones Foundation) — that has dignity in it.”

Graham said Esperanza is only a “Band-Aid on a corroded artery.”

In the debate around how to address homelessness, Graham, referencing the biblical story of the good Samaritan, said “it begs the question, ‘Are you going to be the passerby or are you going to be the robber, or are you going to be the Samaritan?’”

“We must be willing to lift people out of the misery on the side of the road that are beaten and battered and trauma-filled and lift them into a place of dignity and be able to write that check,” he said. “We can’t just take them from one roadside and then dump them onto another roadside.”

Graham said there’s simply “no short-term answer to this deal, which is what everybody wants … so they’re going to yell at the mayor.”

Mendenhall points out people have been camping in Salt Lake City “for generations,” whether it is along the riverbeds of the Jordan River or in city parks.

But a sanctioned tent community is “not enough, frankly, for what we can do,” Mendenhall said. “What I know we’re capable of doing as a community is to give people warm, safe, protected shelters to live their lives independently and with the degree of respect they deserve.”

To the mayor, established camping areas can become “an incredible health hazard for people who live there, and that hazard spills out in many different ways to the rest of community.” Mendenhall said she’s “never seen a city handle” an established camping area well.

“What I’ve seen time and time again — and Seattle is a fantastic example of this — where the more entrenched a camp gets the bigger and more dense it gets, the less likely it is that any of the services are going to make their way in,” she said. “It’s very difficult for service providers to establish relationships … and when people are in these larger encampments, it’s next to impossible to actually help them get out.

“I don’t think that is the best we can do for our people,” she said. “We don’t need to set the bar so far that we’re never going to achieve it, and that’s what’s attractive to me about these tiny home managed villages.”