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Utah Man Opens Homeless Encampment In Front Yard In Effort To Help City's Housing Crisis

Photo: anatoliy_gleb / Shutterstock

A Salt Lake City resident has opened his property to displaced locals in order to provide temporary assistance to the city’s homeless population and raise awareness for a long-term solution.

Fed up with governmental inaction, community organizer and activist Darin Mann created The Village Camp in mid-January.

Mann's home is also the site of his non-profit organization, The Village Cooperative, which grows produce for the surrounding neighborhoods of Fairpark and Rose Park. 

The front yard is clustered with tents, grills, and fires that were set up with the help of volunteers and camp residents.

Visiting itinerants rest weary limbs and warm their hands over the flames.

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“I don’t know of a case where people have opened up their home to a homeless camp,” Mann told reporters. “We’re pioneering that.”

The Village Camp’s occupants are provided with basic necessities such as food and medicine. They are also allowed to use the bathroom in Mann’s house, a much-needed resource since the pandemic has limited access to such facilities. 

Five to fifteen people have been allowed in the camp since its formation, but Mann says “10 is the sweet spot.” He also enforces a one-strike policy on drugs and violence, but says there have been no such issues in the camp so far.

“What I hope to break is this stereotype that they’re just taking handouts,” Mann said. “They’re really resilient and like to help out around the garden and help out (in) the space and be respectful.”

The camp creator has criticized dialogue surrounding the homelessness crisis and called for a change in rhetoric. 

“If we destigmatize (homelessness),” he explained, “then it’s something that’s to be addressed rather than kind of be afraid of it.”

“Let’s not be afraid of it anymore. Let’s be actionable.”

Mann’s camp provides stability and protection for its transient visitors. One praised the community as a welcome respite from other tent cities, which he called “unpredictable” and “dangerous.” 

Frederick Hidalgo, another occupant who has been struggling with homelessness for seven years, said of The Village Camp, “This is where the peace is at.”

Darin Mann hopes to set an example for both civilians and government officials by showing them that real, tangible aid is possible.

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In 2015, Salt Lake City was lauded for its progress on the homelessness crisis. However, experts and officials have said the issue is far more complicated than it has been portrayed, and the city can’t afford to dismiss the problem as being solved.

Local food bank director Glenn Bailey noted that “there’s a temptation to say this is sort of a finite problem, and, in fact, it really isn’t.” 

“You have to continually add resources in order to keep up with it,” he explained.

One inhibiting factor in this process is a high demand in the city’s residential market.

The former executive director of non-profit Shelter the Homeless, Preston Cochrane, has explained that this demand raises costs and impedes the construction of affordable housing.

"The market-rate housing has the ability to capture the higher-market rents to get bigger loans," Cochrane added. "But affordable housing projects don't have that luxury."

In light of such complexities, many Utahns have criticized the government response to the crisis as insufficient. Furthermore, recent actions by Salt Lake City’s health department have forced de-homed people to clear out of encampments, leaving them stranded.

“Every time we push them,” Darin Mann said of such measures, “we put them right back at square zero.”

Although most are supportive, some neighbors have complained about The Village Camp.

David Oskow called the use of the space “disrespectful,” and said that he and other disapproving area residents “don’t have the resources” to counteract the situation.

Mann also received a notice from the city ordering him to clean up his lawn by Feb. 4th, citing a code violation and threatening legal action if he failed to comply.

About such objections, Mann has conceded, “I understand their qualms.” However, he believes the misgivings are partially fueled by misconception, and that “the way we look at unsheltered people must change.”

“We can all be a great aid to one another if we just have a shift in perspective,” Mann insists.

As of February 3rd, The Village camp has been granted an extension and will be allowed to remain in operation through the 19th. 

By way of a long-term solution, Darin revealed that he has been “talking to several groups to begin working on a shelter program.”

“It is time to see humans as humans regardless of their situation,” Mann said.

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Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.