Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy Mayor Becker's inbox

Update: The Mayor (or a designated representative) responds below.

Occupy Salt Lake is being kicked out of Pioneer Park in the wake of the death of a (probably) homeless man in their camp. I disagree with the decision, so I wrote the Mayor's office.

Mister Mayor,

A man died. I understand that, and I take this tragedy seriously, just as you do. But Chief Burbank appears to be casting the blame on the Occupy Salt Lake encampment, before the results of the autopsy have even been released to the public. The decision to disperse the camp is wrong.

I haven't camped overnight, but I've spent a lot of time in the encampment during the evenings and gone on several marches. I've donated food and helped people set up tents and other facilities. My impression has always been that the homeless people there are happy that the encampment allows them one place in the city where they can safely and legally set up a tent and spend the night.


Chief Burbank says we're "affecting" the city's ability to provide services, even though he admits that the homeless services of Salt Lake are inadequate to meet the needs of the population they're trying to serve. He claims that nobody has died in Pioneer Park in his memory, and that were it not for the encampment, nobody would have died there this year. He ignores the fact that fifty-plus people have died from homelessness in each of the last two years. So why would he expect that this death would have been prevented, rather than simply moved to some quiet, out of the way freeway bypass or Jordan River encampment? By the same logic, thousands of people die at the University Hospital each year...

He also seemed to claim in the video that the new, stricter anti-panhandling ordinances have somehow benefited the homeless population. I fail to see how; it may reduce the number of complaints against homeless people, but it does so only by driving them back into the shadows. We have criminalized homelessness in this city, which angers me and breaks my heart.

The services we provide to our homeless citizens are inadequate, especially for those who -- for various reasons that we probably shouldn't pass judgment on -- choose not to use the shelters. This death -- in fact, the death of any homeless person -- ought to be used as an opportunity to point out this inadequacy and lobby for more comprehensive services. Instead, I feel like the city has closed ranks and scapegoated the encampment, thereby throwing the problematic corpse in the unshowered hippies' backyard. In doing so, you're forcing a needless confrontation with a group of people who are merely exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

Dozens of homeless people are going to die this winter, if past is indeed prologue. Leave the camp open. Perhaps the services being provided by Occupy Salt Lake down at Pioneer Park will help prevent a few of those deaths. Perhaps it will bring the realities of homelessness out of the shadows. Like all of us, the homeless need more than food and shelter: they need a feeling of community, a place to belong. Giving them a place where they can come together to legally live, and keep their meager belongings without fear of having the police confiscate their campsite, could mean the world.

I'm sure you're getting a lot of flack from the angry Right. Just know that, if you choose to support us, a lot of Salt Lake residents have your back. That goes double for anything you can do from the Mayor's office to create more comprehensive and compassionate services for our homeless residents.

Bryce Anderson

May you live in exponential times.

Update: Mayor Becker's response.

Dear Bryce:

I appreciate your inquiry regarding Occupy Salt Lake City, and I hope this information is helpful, please let me know if you have any additional questions once you’ve had a chance to review. I am also including an earlier statement from Friday/November 11th which you may have already seen.

The fact is I am absolutely supportive of the right to protest and for the Occupy movement to be in Salt Lake City. This is not a “shut down” of the Occupy Salt Lake City it is simply a rescinding of the exception for camping in parks.

We continue to work with organizers to figure out how they can have a continuous physical presence to occupy both Pioneer Park and the Gallivan entrance Main Street while not actually camping overnight and we are very optimistic that we can work this out.


Ralph Becker


November 11th Statement:

Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank reiterate their commitment to ensuring and protecting the essential rights of all residents of the City to peacefully assemble, protest and exercise free speech.

The decision to discontinue allowing overnight camping on public property was precipitated by much more than the tragic death late Thursday night at the Occupy SLC encampment at Pioneer Park.

Since the onset of camping at Pioneer Park, local law enforcement has responded to a dramatically increased amount of criminal activity in the park, and has made over 90 arrests in the area since early October. In addition, a melee involving over 30 people the night before the fatality led to four arrests and marked, along with the elevated criminal activity, an indication that public safety in and around the encampment has become increasingly questionable. Additionally, the amount of human and animal waste, as well as drug paraphernalia, is an escalating public health concern.

Local social service providers and advocates for Salt Lake City’s homeless population have decried the contention made by Occupy SLC that the group is somehow providing services not already available in the area. On Friday, Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for Utah’s homeless population, addressed the group on this issue.

“Many of our homeless friends have great need, but meeting those needs takes a certain amount of training, education and expertise,” Atkinson said. “We need to take care of our homeless friends in the proper way, with the most expert care that we have and this kind of tent city is not the kind of environment that helps people. You may provide food here and a caring kind of attitude, but that is not sufficient.”

A Salt Lake Tribune story (see it here), published later on Friday, included statements from shelter operators that confirmed Atkinson’s assurance that shelters and social service providers in the area of the Pioneer Park encampment were under capacity and available to provide accommodations and meals.

Salt Lake City works closely with individuals and agencies that provide services to the homeless community. Mayor Becker formed the Committee on Homelessness last year to address the concerns of those who are homeless in Salt Lake City. The committee is comprised of local, county and state representatives, as well as community advocates, and meets regularly with the Mayor.

The City, through allocation of federal dollars, appropriates funding for Emergency Shelter Grants, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. These programs aid those who are homeless those who are at risk of being homeless, and low-income families.