Officials clean up Jordan River to discourage homeless encampmentsDec 03, 2018 03:05PM ● By Carl Fauver
This kind of heavy brush is what Salt Lake County crews are removing this winter, with heavy equipment, so people attempting to make homeless encampments can be more easily seen. (Carl Fauver/Valley Journals)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
A large cleanup effort, which might normally cost some $600,000 to $700,000 over two to three months is now underway along a portion of the Jordan River that borders Taylorsville City’s eastern boundary.
Russian Olives, tamarisk and other invasive plants continue to take over the banks of the river, from 3900 to 4800 South. City and county crews want to clear the area to encourage songbirds and birds of prey back into the area.
But make no mistake about it, this 75- to 90-day effort is primarily about removing the homeless population — an ongoing challenge made even more difficult 16 months ago, with Salt Lake City’s “Operation Rio Grande.”
“There are several reasons why we are starting the cleanup effort now; but there is no doubt it would not be as critical if it were not for the homeless population in the area,” said Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Associate Division Director Wayne Johnson. “We will have 10 to 15 people working on site — probably into February — using heavy equipment to clear brush. We’ll be clearing 30 to 35 acres. The homeless tend to move along once they don’t have brush to camp under.”
Before the county’s heavy equipment showed up last month, Taylorsville City officials also did their part.
“The city pulled about 30 tons of garbage out of that area in October,” Johnson added. “We need that kind of junk out of the way in order for our equipment to most effectively remove the overgrowth. They did a good job of clearing it out of the way.”
Then the week before the heavy equipment work began, police officers and county health department personnel provided people living in the brushy area information about how to get assistance and to warn them the equipment was on its way.
“We don’t provide people living in that area with things like blankets, clothing or food,” said Unified Police Taylorsville Precinct Chief Tracy Wyant. “But we give them access to information and resources to help them get those kinds of things from the proper agencies. We don’t necessarily want to move these people. But for the health and safety of the rest of our residents, we can’t allow people to camp in there indefinitely.”
Wyant said his agency is also acting at the request of business owners in the area who claim the homeless population is adversely impacting their bottom line.
“Chief Wyant and I attended a meeting — along with Murray City government representatives — at the request of business owners in the area,” said Taylorsville Mayor Kristie Overson. “A Subway sandwich store recently closed there, with the homeless population cited as the No. 1 reason for a decline in business. Gas station and restaurant managers in the area have also noticed an increase in crime along with a decline in customers.”
The brush clearing effort began at the Jordan River and 3900 South and is to continue to the south. Johnson said some of the acreage is privately owned, with negotiation required to allow county crews access to the area.
“This kind of project is certainly politically charged, and we don’t want to do anything to make things more difficult for the homeless than they already are,” Overson said. “But there is no question this cleanup will make that area safer for our residents. That is always my top priority.”
County heavy equipment crews have actually been doing this kind of brush clearing work for about 10 years.
“But certainly the demand has gotten worse since (Operation Rio Grande) displaced homeless residents who had been living in that part of Salt Lake City,” Johnson said. “Two years ago, and again last year, we cleared brush and overgrowth between 3300 South and 3900 South. But those projects were only about a third of the size of what we want to get done this year.”
Construction is now underway on some new homeless shelters in the Salt Lake Valley. But don’t try telling Wyant that will solve Taylorsville City’s transient challenge.
“I think it will be minimal relief at best when the new shelters are built,” Wyant said. “Many of these people simply choose to live this way. They know resources are available. But they elect to live this lifestyle.”