Wyoming, which sends homeless people to Utah, is “disgraceful,” says Salt Lake City mayor

Reports from a Wyoming-based news outlet that Jackson’s law enforcement agencies may be sending homeless people to Salt Lake City have sparked frustrations that have long simmered.

For Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the reports point to a larger problem, one that’s hard to trace but also one that she says has been supported by anecdotal stories for years. That other cities — inside and outside of Utah — have sent their homeless to Salt Lake City and its resources instead of addressing the issue at home.

“I’m frustrated, but unfortunately not surprised,” Mendenhall said in an interview with the Deseret News on Friday morning. “This is just further evidence of an overarching theme that we in Salt Lake City have known for years.”

Mendenhall said she’s had “mayors and councilors from the Wasatch front and back for the last few years look me in the eye and say, ‘If we see someone in our city who is experiencing homelessness, we bet put him in the backseat of a squad car and drop her off in Salt Lake City.’”

Road Home's Michelle Flynn tours Magnolia, a new permanent home development in Salt Lake City.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, right, gives a tour of Magnolia, a new permanent residential building, during the opening ceremony in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Owned by Shelter the Homeless and operated by Road Home, the new building has 65 units for people who have experienced homelessness.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The mayor said she believes it came from a “compassionate place” because Salt Lake City has more resources than other areas, “but there are absolutely not enough resources for a single city” to serve an entire state’s homeless population help – let alone individuals from other states.

Salt Lake City isn’t entirely alone, she added, crediting Ogden, St. George, Midvale and South Salt Lake for hosting charities for the homeless. “But basically, five cities across this state are shouldering a statewide housing and homelessness crisis. And it’s unsustainable.”

How many homeless people come to Utah?

It’s not clear how many Wyoming homeless people have come to Salt Lake City for services. But in an article published Tuesday by Jackson Hole News & Guide, Lt. Russ Ruschill of the Jackson Police Department said he knew local law enforcement officers bought bus tickets for at least three people with no accommodations. However, the outlet notes that “official records are not kept and officials do not always share when they have provided that service.”

“The current game plan for helping the ‘chronically’ homeless in Teton County varies, but if they are believed to be committing a crime, the police will issue a subpoena or arrest them,” reported the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “If a mental health crisis occurs, they can take them to the hospital for medical treatment or work with the community counseling center or the Salvation Army to find a place to go.”

A first version of the news article also said that a Teton County District Court judge issued a release order for a “frequent flyer” who rode his bike in and out of jail, “that he either committed to the 24/7 Teton County program, a program that directs defendants to either give body samples to test their sobriety, or go to Salt Lake City.” On Friday, however, the outlet issued a correction of a “material error” and posed notes that another court official signed the order and that she actually ordered the man to “test his sobriety twice a day or go to the Salt Lake City Express” for medical tx in SLC, which the judge said was “for medical treatment in Salt Lake City” means.

“The News&Guide regrets the error and has worked to correct it as soon as it was brought to our attention,” the outlet stated in the correction. “Coverage of this important issue continues and the newspaper sticks to the rest of the article, which discusses how officials use many tools to respond to calls about homeless people, including sometimes purchasing bus tickets to Salt Lake City.”

The outlet also noted that Wyoming’s ACLU is suing Teton County over its 24/7 program, claiming that giving defendants twice-daily breath samples before sentencing is unconstitutional.

Attempts to reach Ruschill on Friday were unsuccessful, and the Deseret News was referred to Susan Scarlata, a “community engagement specialist” in the city of Jackson. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Teton County District Judge James Radda, whom the Jackson media initially misidentified as the judge who wrote the warrants, referred the Deseret News to a series of emails with the News & Guide reporter that ultimately led to a correction of the led history. He wrote in an email shared with other media outlets that he had never issued an order “conditional on the release of a defendant by ordering the defendant to leave Jackson for homelessness” or similar orders.

That doesn’t deny, however, that police officers have bought bus tickets to Salt Lake City for people affected by homelessness on at least three occasions, according to Ruschill’s comments to Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Mendenhall said her office had “anecdotally, unofficially” heard from service providers Thursday that there are individuals who have (have) been identified who are directly from Wyoming, but we have not pushed to find out their personal information about it what place.”

When asked Thursday if service providers for the homeless are aware that someone from Wyoming is currently receiving services at their facilities, officials from the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness issued a statement saying, “We do not currently have any additional intelligence or Information about circumstances in Wyoming.”

The coalition’s goal is to “make homelessness short, infrequent and non-recurring,” the statement continued, adding that its network of service providers for the homeless “continue to serve people who need help who arrive at our facilities will serve no matter where they come from.”

“Homelessness is a national problem. Evidence-based solutions are critical to tackling homelessness,” the coalition added. “We encourage local governments to avoid criminalizing homelessness while working with their Continuum of Care to provide assistance and seek durable housing solutions for people who do not have a safe and stable place to call home.”

‘disgraceful’

“I understand, as does every major city mayor in this country, that homelessness is the most difficult problem we face,” Mendenhall said, “because the federal government, even the state and local governments are not working together and not raising enough resources to address a national crisis.”

In a series of tweets Thursday, Mendenhall urged Jackson Mayor Hailey Levinson and other Jackson officials to “work with their local partners in Teton County and the state of Wyoming to address these issues in their city and state.”

“This is an acknowledgment that other cities send to their homeless residents #SLC is not surprising. But to know that this is happening through manipulation of the criminal justice system is irresponsible, disheartening and cruel on a humanitarian level,” Mendenhall said tweeted.

It’s “another clear indicator that cities and states across the country — even in one of the wealthiest places in the US — are struggling to address the accelerating humanitarian crisis of homelessness,” Mendenhall added. “I urge other cities and regions to develop resources to keep people closer to home instead of forcing people to become refugees in their own country.”

Mendenhall said she wanted to understand Levinson’s perspective “and give her a chance to tell me what’s going on there,” noting that Levinson was not interviewed for the Jackson Hole News & Guide story. However, Mendenhall added that she wants her to know that “any eviction of its residents from Wyoming to any other state due to an inability or unwillingness to meet their needs is totally irresponsible.”

Levinson did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.



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