They're homeless and they don't have anywhere to go —Christie Andrews, A-1 Access Storage manager
SOUTH SALT LAKE — Storage units have become makeshift residences in the Salt Lake Valley, a search warrant has revealed.
Last month, South Salt Lake police, the city fire marshal and the Salt Lake County Health Department found people living in at least five units at A-1 Storage, 3202 S. Davis Drive (460 West).
In one unit, officials found "a makeshift bedroom with food, clothing and other living accessories," according to a search warrant released Thursday. In another there were televisions, microwaves and lamps.
"We also saw recliners, work stations, heaters and air conditioning units," police wrote.
Conditions were neither sanitary nor safe, public safety and health officials said.
Health officials found human waste being stored in bottles and "presumably disposed of in an unknown manner," the warrant states. Multiple extension cords were also found running from a single outlet. At least one tenant had cut holes between the units to allow for movement.
Neither South Salt Lake police nor health officials had an exact count of how many people were living in the storage sheds but did not believe Friday that any children had been staying there.
A-1 Access Storage manager Christie Andrews, however, said a family of three with a 3-month-old child was living in one of the storage units. She said sometimes families can't keep up with traditional rent.
"They're homeless and they don't have anywhere to go," she said, adding that some of the families had been living in the sheds for six months.
"They bolt themselves in, so I couldn't tell they were in there. They were secretly locking themselves in," she said. "I would kick them out and then an hour later they were there."
Advocates for Utah's homeless said they rarely encounter people living in storage units.
Ed Snoddy, who has worked as a homeless outreach worker with Volunteers of America since 1995, said he has not personally witnessed people living in rental units. He has worked with many people who live in homeless camps, between buildings, in abandoned buildings and in tents along the Jordan River.
"This is the first I've heard about it. Personally, on our outreach trips, we've never seen it," he said.
As the community has adopted a "housing first" initiative to assist the homeless, "we're not finding as large of camps as we used to," Snoddy said.
Tony Milner, executive director of Family Promise of Salt Lake, a nonprofit agency that provides services and housing to homeless families through a network of local churches, said more often, people who seek assistance are living in their cars.
The nonprofit has also served clients who have been living in garages of private residences. "That was doable for them in the summer but during the winter they were freezing."
Virginia Martinez, an advocate with Salt Lake Community Action Program, said she knows families who have shuttled their belongings between rental units after they have lost their housing. However, she was not aware of people inhabiting them.
Cory Milligan, manager of 13th South Self Storage, said many self-storage businesses have security and surveillance systems to discourage renters from attempting to occupy units or to detect people who attempt to take up residence.
"It's not set up for that (habitation) at all. I did have one tenant and he was here most of the time. I had to give him a letter to let him know he could not stay here. He wasn't too thrilled with that," he said.
But the rents for storage units are significantly lower than apartments or rooms. A 10-foot by 10-foot unit rents for about $80 a month. Month-to-month rentals are available at many rental businesses.
Finding an apartment or room to rent "is tough once you have bad credit," Milligan said. "The economy keeps getting worse. It's probably going to happen more often."
As of Friday, the health department said three of the South Salt Lake units were completely vacated and another two had notices posted on them. It was not believed that anyone was living in those units, but their possessions may have still been inside.
Andrews said she has turned away 10 to 15 people over the past two weeks who wanted to rent storage sheds, suspecting their real intent was to move in themselves.