Less than five minutes’ drive from downtown Salt Lake City sits the quiet neighborhood of Fairpark. The area hosts an annual state fair, a regional campus of Utah State University and modest homes with small yards.
On one of those yards sits a random group of tents where people experiencing homelessness have set up camp. They are there at the invitation of homeowner Darin Mann. He lets the people camp on his tidy third of an acre, use a bathroom in his house and volunteer at a community garden Mann runs at a nearby public park.
Tents in the front yard
“The goal is to de-stigmatize how people view homelessness,” Mann explains. “Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and helped when they need it.”
The local activist opened up his impromptu tent area, dubbed “Village Camp,” in mid-January. Some 15 people live there right now. Mann tells CNN that the residents came from other camps in Salt Lake City that were shut down.
“We wanted to show that to solve this problem we have to address it as a community and not be afraid of it.”
Mann points out how Village Camp’s residents help pull their weight in the community, especially at the urban garden he maintains.
“They are helping me clean the garden and get it ready for the season. They keep the camp clean and are helping to be a positive example of working with unsheltered people”
The neighborhood reacts
Not all of the neighbors share Mann’s enthusiasm.
City officials have received complaints, served the activist with a code violation (camping for more than two days on residential property is illegal here) and given him a two-week notice to close down his camp.
Darrin plans to somehow keep his village going. He claims to have an open line of communication with his neighbors, several of whom cook food for the camp and donate clothing. Other neighbors have hired camp residents to work around their houses. For his residents, Mann espouses a zero-tolerance policy for violent behavior or drug use.
The people camping in Mann’s yard say they feel welcome and secure.
“I don’t have to deal with stress knowing I don’t have to suddenly move,” a man named Michael told CNN. “Being away from a lot of the bad influences has helped me quit some of the addictions I struggle with.”
A resident named Brandy is grateful to Darin Mann. “To him I was a stranger he saw a few times, but he took a chance and stepped up to the plate to help us.”
Setting an example
Mann believes the Salt Lake City government should do more for people with no place to call home. He says small homeless communities coupled with urban farming programs like his should play a role.
The activist has been meeting with high-level city officials in hopes of keeping his front yard village open beyond the next two weeks and setting an example for ways to help people living on society’s margins.
“We hope that this new camp can be the genesis of something beautiful.”