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Cleanup effort clears out homeless camps along Jordan River

SALT LAKE COUNTY -- A huge cleanup is underway along the Jordan River, to get rid of homeless camps. Some camps on the river are so built up they look like small buildings and bunkers.

Several inmates from the Department of Corrections, members of the Salt Lake County Health Department, and volunteers spent Thursday picking up loads of trash, human feces and dirty needles from a camp in the area south of 3900 South.

All the garbage—which included clothing, furniture, food items and other miscellaneous stuff--sat in a massive pile several yards long.

“This is just a fraction of the amount of waste,” said Dale Keller, Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Bureau Director.

He said the garbage and trash was piled up a foot deep in some places, and they had cleaned up about 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of waste within a mile radius of the camp.

These camps, Keller said, have become a big problem.

“We have seen more transients in this part than we have, this part along the river than we have in the past,” he said.

When asked if the increase in transients could be related to Operation Rio Grande, Keller said while there may have been an increase in people, Operation Rio Grande is not responsible for the long-term encampments that have existed, in some cases, for up to two years.

The human feces, used needles and loads of garbage have built up so badly that he said it became a public health issue, and that’s why the health department stepped in.

He said they, along with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Corrections, Utah Department of Transportation and local city governments teamed up for the cleanup effort.

First, he said they posted notices in the area and met with homeless residents about the cleanup plans.

Keller said social workers then went out to the camp and educated people on resources available to them.

A few days later, he said they returned and gave the homeless residents who hadn’t left yet time to gather their things.

“We allowed them to collect what belongings they wanted, and in some cases we even helped them to pack those belongings up,” he explained.

It’s a process that he said they’re planning for a different site north of 3900 South.

In that area, State Senator Karen Mayne (D- West Valley City) toured the camps still inhabited on Thursday, then tweeted out photos of her tour.

The pictures show small cabins, and underground bunkers.

Keller said they’re seeing transients build structures and cut bunkers into the banks of the Jordan River to do what they can for shelter.

“There are three or four structures that you could argue need a building permit, they are so extensive,” Keller said.

He said he and West Valley City officials plan to strategize cleanup of that area, but he said it’ll be a challenge because there are federal protections on the land that might make it difficult to bring in any heavy equipment for cleanup.

For now, they’ll focus on the camp south of 3900 South, and by the end of Thursday, it was evident they made a great deal of progress.

Some areas were completely clean and back to their natural, un-trashed state.

Keller said UDOT planned to come in on Friday to haul off the piled-up garbage and take it to the landfill, while inmates would clean up the rest of the trash.