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Utah homeless groups report influx of Venezuelans, say resources are taxed

SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates for the homeless across Utah are reporting an influx of immigrants, notably from Venezuela, echoing comments from Gov. Spencer Cox late last week expressing alarm at an apparent flurry of immigrant arrivals from Denver.

“We are seeing an increase in asylum-seekers, mostly from Venezuela,” said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, a homeless advocacy group. One Salt Lake City-based homeless agency recently “exited” 40 Venezuelan families getting assistance from the organization, she said, apparently because they didn’t have Social Security numbers, as required to tap into help.

Judy Doud, director of the Ogden Rescue Mission in Ogden, also reports an uptick in Venezuelans seeking assistance, a new trend for the Ogden homeless shelter. Venezuelans have been fleeing the South American nation for years in search of asylum elsewhere, pushed by what the U.S. State Department has said is the corruption and economic mismanagement endemic under President Nicolás Maduro.

“One day, eight people were dropped off here and could not speak a word of English. We don’t have anyone who could talk to them. This is happening more and more,” Doud said. The men’s dorm at the shelter has been full for months, she said, while the women’s shelter has “a few” open beds each night.

The state of Utah, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County collaborated in creation of flyers in Spanish, left, and English warning asylum-seekers of limited services they may be able to access in Utah.
The state of Utah, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County collaborated in creation of flyers in Spanish, left, and English warning asylum-seekers of limited services they may be able to access in Utah. (Photo: Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla)

The situation has prompted state, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County officials to create a flyer asking immigrants without Utah connections to reconsider coming to the state. The Venezuelan Alliance of Utah, a cultural nonprofit organization made up of Venezuelans now living in Utah, posted the flyer on its Instagram page earlier this month.

“If you do not have a safe, stable connection of family in Utah, consider another state to settle in the U.S.,” reads the flyer. It’s titled, “Utah Intended Destination Alert,” and cites lacking shelter space, taxed food banks and long wait times to get legal help with asylum requests.

The focus on the issue has also prompted a state lawmaker, Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, to caution against demonizing immigrants as the immigration debate intensifies. She acknowledged that newcomers, whether immigrants or not, stress the state’s already burdened homeless advocacy system. But she also noted the United States’ heritage as a nation of immigrants and the history of Utah, in particular, as a destination for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fleeing persecution they faced elsewhere in the country.

“I will say this: Let’s not forget how this country was built by immigrants … running away from persecution,” said Escamilla, whose office supplied digital copies of the flyers, one in Spanish and one in English. Mormon pioneers to Utah in the 19th century, she went on, “were seeking refuge from persecution,” which echoes the stories of some coming as part of the current influx.

‘Atlanta and Houston have also sent some folks’

News that the city of Denver was covering the transportation costs of some immigrants to travel from the Colorado capital to Salt Lake City caused an uproar last Friday. Denver, also overwhelmed by an immigrant influx, has also covered the cost of transporting immigrants to Chicago and New York City, which actually received a larger influx than Salt Lake City, according to a report last February by Denverite, a Colorado publication.

Cox called Denver’s practice “completely unacceptable” and said Utah resources “are completely depleted.” Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County officials also said the situation has stressed their ability to contend with the housing and other needs of the immigrants, which led to the alert, published in both Spanish and English.

“Salt Lake County takes pride in its reputation as a welcoming community; however, there is a limit to the resources we can provide for those in need — and the right thing to do is inform people looking to come here of the realities they might face,” said Chris Jones, spokesman for the office of Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Andrew Wittenberg, spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, said city leaders aren’t planning to send immigrants elsewhere. “Salt Lake City has not paid to send migrants to other communities. It is not under consideration,” he said.

At any rate, the situation is taking a toll.

Some of the immigrants seeking help at the Ogden Rescue Mission are difficult to assist given language barriers, causing their tempers to flare at times. “I’m sure their travels have made them tired and weary, less willing to accept we are full,” Doud said.

Garvin said some immigrants have been lured to Utah by the promise of work and concerns they wouldn’t be allowed in New York City, Denver or Texas. “Atlanta and Houston have also sent some folks,” she said. “The larger number is from Denver.”

Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home, said all homeless facilities in Salt Lake County have been full every night “for some time.” The Road Home operates four facilities, full like the others.

“It is crucial to emphasize that the broader decision on how to handle migrating families is a complex matter that requires comprehensive policy considerations beyond our organization’s control,” Flynn said. She also reported an uptick in asylum-seekers from abroad and said they have also been getting help from churches, community members and other cities, aside from homeless organizations.

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