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Draper Journal

With homelessness on the rise in Utah, what is the role of police and what services are available?

May 09, 2024 01:27PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

The police department often gets calls about homeless people in the community, and officers are trained to offer assistance and refer to resources as best they can, but being homeless isn’t a crime. “The reality is they’re just human beings….The majority of people believe it’s all drugs and it’s not. A lot of people are one check away from homelessness with rent so high,” Draper Police Chief Rich Ferguson said. (Stock photo courtesy

Project Human Dignity, an effort launched by the Utah Impact Partnership, says homelessness is on the rise in Utah. Their statistics show that 11 out of every 10,000 Utahns is homeless and 29,579 people sought homeless services in the state

in 2023. 

The organization’s website ( defines and differentiates situational homelessness versus chronic homelessness. Situational homelessness happens because of sudden life setbacks and often improves with social services and affordable housing. Chronic homelessness is a lack of shelter that is a symptom but not a root cause of a bigger problem such as debilitating trauma, disabilities, etc. 

Project Human Dignity’s statistics indicate that chronic homelessness has nearly doubled since 2019, there’s been a 27% increase in chronic homelessness in the past year, and 66% of homeless families are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Following is a Q&A with Draper Police Chief Rich Ferguson about what’s happening with homelessness at the local level:

Q: What is the role of the police department regarding homeless people in the city; when is it necessary for the police to get involved and when is it not?

A: It is not illegal to be homeless and it’s not a crime to be mentally ill, but the police department gets a lot of calls for service where people are concerned about an individual who appears to be homeless. We respond to check welfare. Sometimes they need medical assistance, so we contact the fire department. Other times they may need resources, and we tell them resources offered in Utah…we don’t currently have any (resources) in Draper. Of course, if a crime is being committed, we deal with that in the same way we would if they’re homeless or not. Our job is to protect the civil liberties of all people, including the homeless and the mentally ill.

Q: Why do you think homelessness or the presence of homeless people in Draper is on the rise?

A: I don’t have anything to show that it’s on the rise (in Draper), and our calls for service haven’t skyrocketed. But I do think people within the homeless community may feel preyed upon at shelters and vulnerable (in the city), so they go to quieter suburbs for refuge. They’re riding TRAX to come
 to Draper.

Q: Is interacting with homeless people part of your department’s training?

A: Yes, we have training on how to deal with people in crisis, people in need, dealing with the mentally ill. Our new Community Oriented Policing team consists of a sergeant and two officers dedicated to full-time policing issues within the city. In addition to working with local businesses to teach courses on active shooter situations, helping with nuisance houses in the city, putting on the eight-week Citizens Academy and other things, they also deal with homeless issues. They work with UTA police to clean up encampments. If a camp is abandoned, they clean it up. If it’s not, they ask the people to move along. When we come across encampments where people are starting fires, trespassing into people’s yards, or becoming belligerent, then we deal with that appropriately. The reality is, they’re just human beings. We talk to them just like any
other person. 

Q: What should residents remember about homeless people they might encounter and do you have any recommendations on how best to interact?

A: Instead of supporting panhandling, I encourage people to donate to the Utah Food Bank. 

Q: Whose responsibility is it to come up with solutions for the homeless crisis?

A: It’s a complex issue. You have to look at the root of why are people catapulted into homelessness. The majority of people believe it’s all drugs and it’s not. A lot of people are one check away from homelessness with rent so high. Solving homelessness is not a police issue, we just happen to be the ones who get called for a remedy to it. We don’t have the answers and what we can do is limited, but we are there to offer them guidance, counseling, support, and that’s what we do. I’ve seen police officers carry extra water, gloves, jackets they’ve purchased with their own money, and even officers who have paid for hotel rooms out of their own pocket for a homeless person. We do what we can.

Draper resident and Salt Lake County councilmember Suzanne Harrison offered these responses in a Q&A on what’s happening countywide to help the homeless:

Q: What is happening at the county level to help alleviate homelessness?

A: Concerted efforts are underway to address homelessness through a multifaceted approach. The County provides administrative support to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness which functions as the local homeless council, designated by the State of Utah. This coalition brings together stakeholders committed to minimizing homelessness by rendering it rare, brief and non-recurring. Efforts extend to securing federal funds for housing, services and support…we have initiatives like the Medically Vulnerable Persons Program, Tiny Home Village, and deeply affordable housing projects like The Point. Mental health services are a crucial focus with contracts in place for providers to offer support at various levels, including residential and group homes. Youth services are also prioritized. In fact, there are plans for a new homeless shelter tailored to youth to open in May. Public health issues are addressed by the Salt Lake County Health Department. Working with the state, Salt Lake City and others…we worked together to identify gaps and barriers in the system and analyze the cost of necessary additional investment. This led to a comprehensive regional five-year plan that has been developed. Annual initiatives including the Point-In-Time Homeless Count and winter efforts including operating a Code Blue facility during harsh weather demonstrate an ongoing commitment to understanding and alleviating homelessness at the county level. 

Q: What would you want people to know about interacting with homeless people?

A: An encounter with an individual experiencing homelessness should be handled in the same manner of approaching any stranger. A smile and a kind hello are a great place to start.

Q: Any tips for how best to help the homeless or direct them to resources?

A: Share the following resource guide:

Encourage folks to utilize 2-1-1:

Direct folks to the Wiegand Day Center – 437 W. 200 South. They can access food and other resources such as shelter. The dashboard showing bed capacity is at or call for info on available beds,