Posted to a wall underneath the I-15 overpass near 900 South, a banner reads “We are all related.” The sign oversees a mid-sized campus of unsheltered people on couches and lawn chairs, tents and teepees. The smell of campfire smoke and hashbrowns wafts its way eastward.
Camp Last Hope represents a new approach to organizing around homelessness in Salt Lake City. Rather than supporting unsheltered people from camp to camp as they face abatements, the organizers of the camp found a large, disused plot of land and brought people there with the intent to defend it.
Camp Last Hope is also innovative because it acts as a network hub across multiple encampments throughout the city.
Through groups like Black Lives for Humanity Movement, Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support (PANDOS), Decarcerate Utah and Utah Against Police Brutality (UAPB), local organizing has shifted toward a cooperative approach of battling homelessness. Instead of each group arranging their own volunteer days and working from separate donation pools, they consolidate all their resources into one network.
All of the associated organizers met and began working together during the summer of 2020, connecting amid the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation — and then the world.
Because of its significant amount of media exposure, Camp Last Hope is in the unique position to distribute volunteers and donations to other campuses such as the Open Air Shelter — located around the corner from Last Hope and run by members of UAPB — as well as Camp Freedom and others.
Dave John, treasurer of PANDOS and weekend chef at Camp Last Hope, connected the inception of Camp Last Hope to the closing of the Road Home in 2019.
“I hope the city [and] the state kind of look at the problem we have which they caused,” John said. “I remember delivering to the Road Home, and even though there were still people out there, at least they still had like 450 beds. But when they closed that down, it just made a big problem.”
Black Lives for Humanity Movement
In May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests ignited across the country after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In response, local activist and organizer Ty Bellamy sought to take an alternate approach to caring for Black lives.
“We’re not going to let them dehumanize humans,” Bellamy said. “We’re not going to let them criminalize humans. And it’s just really frustrating that I’m having to humanize humans to humans on an every second, every minute, every day basis.”
Bellamy has been well acquainted with unsheltered people from an early age: Both her father and godmother worked closely with unsheltered people while she was growing up in Philadelphia.
“I was like, two or three weeks old when he put me in a chest carrier — because he took care of unsheltered people — and he took me everywhere he went,” Bellamy recalled of her father. “So I’ve grown up doing this, this is in my DNA.”
She goes about her days at Camp Last Hope sorting donations, directing volunteers to nearby camps, arranging transportation to LDS Hospital, ensuring campfires adhere to Salt Lake fire code and otherwise inquiring about the wellbeing of the residents. She said she takes this duty seriously since she sees herself as setting an example for the community at large.
Bellamy discussed the failures of local leaders to adequately address the problem of homelessness in Salt Lake City.
“Law enforcement, the health department, city council, everybody needs to reevaluate their practices because they are not only putting people in harm’s way,” she said. “They are setting an example for other people to do the same thing they’re doing.”
Blanca Miranda, a resident of the camp, spoke of her admiration for Bellamy, having lived at the camp and known her since Dec. 14.
“I see her now and she’s still striving and still pushing for these people,” Miranda said. “She’s not giving up, she’s not giving up, she’s still going. Honestly, I just didn’t think that anybody could have that much interest.”
PANDOS began as a joint effort by indigenous and non-indigenous activists alike in 2016 in Salt Lake City. The nation set its eyes on the Standing Rock protests, in which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and allies protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock watershed and ancestral lands.
Both in solidarity and to address local concerns, a group of Salt Lake City activists including Carl Moore founded PANDOS as a vehicle to advocate for indigenous people’s rights and sovereignty.
Moore regularly tours the camp and checks in on residents, many of whom he has come to know well.
“When you think about sacred people, just look past the human life that’s sacred,” Moore said. “They think of like a religion and all that shit, but it’s like, ‘Nah man.’ Like, people’s lives are sacred, and we’ve got to value that.”
Moore ties Camp Last Hope to the PANDOS mission for native sovereignty. Because Union Pacific is liable for the land the camp occupies, he points out a questionable chain of ownership that dates back to colonization.
“Even though Union Pacific owns this, and Union Pacific bought this, they bought it from someone who originally stole it,” he said. “Whether that was Mexico that stole it from the Native Americans — essentially, it’s all stolen land.”
Moore corrects what he feels is a misconception among government officials and some segments of the public.
“We’re not trying to keep people here — that’s not the goal,” Moore said. “It’s a transition period. Actually, the goal at this immediate time is to keep people fucking alive in the wintertime.”
Despite its name, Camp Last Hope is not the final stop for many residents. Moore, Bellamy and other residents spoke about the potential of Camp Freedom, which would serve as a new downtown campus.
With 15 units of more robust temporary housing, Bellamy is looking to transition a handful of residents into slightly warmer and more stable surroundings.
“[Camp Freedom] is where people graduated to their next level,” Bellamy said. “Obviously we’re vetting them, and once they go through that vetting process, then they go to the next camp […] so they’ve been here for over a month, they’ve shown us they’ve been able to keep their area clean. They have no conflict […] and they don’t struggle with addiction […] those are our success stories from here.”
Bellamy said the long-term plan for Camp Freedom is to show local and state governments how effective this method of supporting unsheltered people can be, and what can be accomplished with few resources. Her hope is that this will lead local governments to invest in more grassroots solutions to homelessness.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Camp Freedom as Camp New Beginnings. The camp was renamed since the original interview and that change has been reflected in this story.