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Tenant at student housing in Orem evicted due to suicidal thoughts

A local tenant at the Ventana student housing complex in Orem is facing eviction after voicing suicidal thoughts to her roommates.

According to a note posted to her door and supplied to multiple Salt Lake City media outlets, the young woman received the notice of eviction on Tuesday with a move out date set for Monday.

“We have been made aware that you have vocalized suicidal tendencies which has caused undo stress and alarm to your roommates and violated part E and F of #7 in your lease,” the note reads. “At this time we are choosing to terminate your contract, as explained above.”

The parts of the lease mentioned in the note refer to a breach of the quiet enjoyment of the premises by tenants or guests and the reckless endangerment of human life.

Taryn Hiatt, the Utah and Nevada area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she had never heard of such a thing and compared it to having a stroke and being evicted.

“I was livid,” Hiatt said of her initial thoughts. “I immediately called the apartment complex and got no answer. I said in my message, ‘Please help me understand and let me offer training, let me come and help you guys know what resources are available.’ I honestly did not even contemplate that this could be an issue. I have never even heard such a thing. We’re going to move forward and make sure that there is some kind of legislative safety net around this.”

Hiatt immediately questioned the legality of the eviction and called Utah House State Representative Steve Eliason from District 45, which includes areas of Midvale and Sandy.

Eliason is a landlord and added that the broad language in the lease allowed Ventana management to find some way to justify an eviction.

“I’m a landlord myself, and I work both policy wise and in my own personal life with people who struggle with mental illness,” Eliason said. “I had a tenant attempt suicide in one of my rental units, but the thought of evicting her for that never crossed my mind. I don’t know all of the factors why this landlord issued an eviction notice, but from the letter, they cited her suicidality as a reason for her eviction. It’s so sad that that would be cited as a reason for terminating somebody’s housing.”

Eliason and Hiatt both described the eviction as a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as the Fair Housing Act.

Repeated calls to Ventana went unanswered and a message requesting comment from management was unreturned.

Hiatt said she reached out and opened up her house to the young woman facing eviction. She added that incidents like this show that people are uninformed on how to help people dealing with mental illnesses.

“Now, not only was she punished for speaking up, which is what we encourage, but now people are not going to speak up,” Hiatt said. “It just perpetuates the stigma we have been fighting for so long. It just sets us back, now people are not going to say anything and that is not what we want.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a major increase in depression and stress due to increases in risk factors for suicide, according to Hiatt. These factors include job loss, isolation and changes in finance, things that are all being seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With all of these factors already affecting mental health problems across the country, an eviction could further add to it.

As for her roommates, who reportedly went to the housing complex with their concerns of suicidal thoughts, Hiatt said they were ignorant and uninformed.

“Now is the time — get educated, learn about this condition, learn about suicide and learn about depression so that you can be helpful to somebody in that situation,” Hiatt said. “You don’t have to fix what’s going on, but you listen, you encourage, you guide and you connect them to resources. We’ve got to educate our communities.”

According to Hiatt, the evicted tenant’s roommates could have arranged help for her, and they could have pointed her to a hotline and crisis counselor. Hiatt said she was reminded of how many people don’t know the signs and resources for those battling mental health issues.

The next steps for the young woman should include focusing on her well-being so she can get engaged in a healthy and productive life again, according to Hiatt.

“I think for her it is getting the health and support she needs right now,” Hiatt said. “See a physician. If you’re struggling with depression and anxiety, let’s see if we could help you with either medication, therapy or both. What do we need to do to help you first? Right now she is overwhelmed, she can’t take on a legal battle and has said as much, but we’re happy to take it on for you.”

Hiatt added that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will continue to pursue legal recourse or at least verbiage in state code that will not allow this to happen to somebody else.

If you or someone you know is struggling or is in crisis, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. For those struggling but not in crisis, reach out to the Statewide Warm Line at 1-833-SPEAKUT. Other resources can be found at liveonutah.org.

'New Leash on Life' pairs abused dogs, inmates in training exercise

There are some new residents at the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, but these walk on four legs.

Five dogs have taken up residence there as part of the “A New Leash on Life” program, a project that pairs up at-risk dogs with inmates of the Utah County Jail for training and socialization.

“We have decided to partner with the South Valley Animal Shelter,” said Sgt. Chris Sainsbury, who heads up the program.

Last week was the first week of the dog rescue program and five inmates were paired up with dogs who need help with socializing, basic obedience and one-on-one time with their inmate trainers before they are ready to be adopted.

“Some have been abused and been in various homes,” Sainsbury said. “We focus on the dogs who aren’t very aggressive.”

The five dogs were moved to the Sheriff’s Office and are kept in kennels. Each morning, their trainers get up and feed them, and take them for walks before they work at their other Jail Industries jobs. Then, they spend time with the dogs in the afternoons and evenings.

“They do the feeding, cleaning and bathing,” Sainsbury said. The inmates are spending three to five hours each day with the dogs. “There has already been an improvement in how the dogs are behaving.”

UCSO’s K9 team has helped teach the inmates to be able to train the dogs. Additionally, the inmate trainers watched a training video before beginning. Several deputies monitor the interactions between the trainers and the dogs.

When the dogs first arrived, they were too scared to even come to the front of their kennels.

“They would cower down if someone walked by them, a sign of abuse,” Sainsbury said. “Now, they walk up and lick hands. One puppy had to be carried over from the shelter, but now it walks with a leash.”

The dogs are not the only ones benefiting from this program. The inmate trainers are gaining benefits as well.

“Some have said, ‘This has been a lifesaver for me,’ or ‘This has totally changed how I view my incarceration,’ ” Sainsbury said. “They line up each morning, ready to go.”

Initially, interested inmates were asked to write letters explaining why they should be chosen to participate in the program. Some had had previous experience with dogs and training. From those applicants, five were chosen to begin the program, but others will rotate through as well.

Sheriff Mike Smith said that the idea for this program came from a Utah County resident who told him about it while he was campaigning for the office of Sheriff.

“Everyone who has been involved in getting this program off the ground is excited about its possibilities,” Smith said. “When you receive comments from inmates that they are disappointed that we were not able to complete the project before their release, you get a pretty good gauge that the program has great potential to create positive results.”

Smith said that the inmates themselves have worked hard to get this program off the ground by working to prepare and build the new homes for the dogs. Others, including local businesses, the UCSO Honorary Colonels and deputies have helped to get the program started through donations. In fact, the name of the program, “A New Leash on Life,” was chosen through a contest among UCSO employees.

It is anticipated that the dogs will stay several weeks and then be returned to South Valley Animal Shelter to be available for adoption.

“Through socialization, time and love, they can be adopted,” Sainsbury said.

Monetary donations for supplies for the program can be submitted through the UCSO Honorary Colonels. Direct supply donations can be dropped off at the Jail Industries office behind the Sheriff’s Office main facility. For more information, contact the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

Citing health threat, Utah animal rights group asks Herbert to shut down mink farms

A Utah animal rights group is calling on Gov. Gary Herbert to “take more decisive action to curb the serious and growing public health threat posed by the zoonotic transmission of coronavirus that is occurring on Utah mink farms,” though the science behind such transmission has not been firmly established.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Service Laboratory announced the first confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in five mink that were identified at two Utah mink farms.

The Utah mink farms, which were not identified, also reported positive COVID-19 cases among staff, according to the governor’s office, which said in a press release that “there is currently no evidence that animals, including mink, play a significant role in transmitting the virus to humans.”

Thousands of mink have died because of the coronavirus on Utah fur farms since the initial detection of SARS-CoV-2 in the animal, the Associated Press reported on Oct. 5.

In a letter mailed to Herbert on Tuesday, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition urged the governor to issue updated executive orders to “immediately suspend all breeding operations on mink farms … mandate COVID-19 testing protocols for both animals and works, and … facilitate greater public transparency about this public health threat.”

“At each of these facilities, mink are likely acting as significant reservoirs for not only viral transmission, but each infected mink also represents a biological factory for amplification and possible mutations,” wrote Jeremy Beckham, executive director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition. “This could result in new serotypes of SARS-CoV-2 that could prove to be even more dangerous, should they cross the species barrier and infect humans.”

Beckham cited research presented at a European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease conference providing “strong evidence” of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between humans and mink based on an investigation of outbreaks at 16 mink farms in the Netherlands.

“Due to longitudinal follow up of the first four farms, we have strong evidence that at least two people on those farms were infected by minks.” The Dutch veterinary scientists said in a press release on Sept. 17.

“Unfortunately, based on our research we cannot make definite conclusions on the direction of most of the infections, so we do not know the total number of people that were infected by minks,” the researchers continued. “We conclude that initially the virus was introduced from humans and has evolved on mink farms, most likely reflecting widespread circulation among mink in the first SARS-CoV-2 mink farms, several weeks prior to detection.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that there currently “is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.”

“Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low,” the CDC said on a web page about COVID-19 and animals that was last updated Aug. 24.

Dean Taylor, state veterinarian for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, told the Associated Press that Utah health officials “genuinely don’t feel like there is much of a risk (of the virus) going from the mink to the people” and noted that the virus primarily affects older minks.

In addition to writing to the governor’s office, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition launched a petition to “pressure Utah Governor Gary Herbert to use the emergency powers granted to his office due to the ongoing COVID pandemic to order an end to all breeding operations on Utah fur farms and the phasing out of this vile industry.”

“The mink farming industry in Utah is a reprehensible industry,” the group wrote. “Mink are isolated in tiny feces-encrusted cages barely larger than a shoebox for their entire lives. … The only time these sensitive animals are removed from these cages are when they are suffocated or gassed so their skins can be removed from their bodies and turned into an unnecessary apparel product … ”

Since the initial detections of SARS-CoV-2 in Utah mink in August, the National Veterinary Services Laboratories has confirmed the virus in four additional mink in Utah. On Oct. 7, the virus was detected in minks in Michigan and Wisconsin.

BYU researchers work to return native plants to county landscape, help prevent fire growth

With fires in the western United States actively burning millions of acres, there has been mass destruction of ecosystems, forests and native plant populations.

As fires rip through local landscapes, native plants are destroyed and invasive weeds find their way in. Those weeds burn much more quickly and inhibit the regrowth of native plants.

Researchers from Brigham Young University, including students and faculty, are setting out to re-establish those native plant species using innovative seed coatings to help the seeds survive a variety of limiting factors.

“Our goal is to try to improve rangeland seeding success, and we focus on wildfires because it’s a major issue,” said Matt Madsen, BYU professor of plant and wildlife sciences. “Most of our seeds throughout the western U.S. are devoted to try and reclaim those areas that have been burned. It’s a challenge because weather doesn’t always cooperate; we don’t always have the moisture we need but there’s also other limiting factors that can remove our seeds or cause mortality. We are trying to identify what those limiting factors are and then develop technologies that will address them.”

These coating technologies work to fight predation by rodents and small mammals as well as protect the seeds from pathogens— like fungi — and shield the seeds from herbicides.

After a fire sweeps through a landscape, knocking out those native plant species, an invasive weed called cheatgrass often takes over. When cheatgrass takes over an area, it robs the moisture from the soil so that native plants cannot survive.

As cheatgrass dominates the site, the next time there is a fire, it will burn through the grass and into more native plants. It’s an endless cycle that has cheatgrass rapidly taking over more and more landscapes.

“Those native plant communities get hammered over and over with repeated fire, and they aren’t adapted to that,” Madsen said. “They die off and cheatgrass takes hold. It’s kind of this march of how cheatgrass keeps expanding as it just burns and burns into the native plant communities. What we need to do is, after a fire, get in there and plant with species that are going to maintain the site.”

Plants native to certain areas have more extensive root systems and can compete with cheatgrass for the moisture the plants need to survive. The challenge is re-establishing the native plants in the area before cheatgrass has the opportunity to invade.

These plants are not only important for humans — by stabilizing the soil and keeping invasive weeds away — but they are also critical to wildlife species, as well.

Madsen used the mule deer population as an example, talking about their migration out of the mountains during the winter and their dependency on sagebrush that stick out of the snow.

When fires take out that plant, other members of the ecosystem suffer, as well. If key species in the area find themselves on the endangered species list, it could also impact the use of the land.

Most of the efforts from the group have been focused in the Great Basin, where catastrophic fires have run their course. A larger focus is also on the lower elevation sites and dryer areas because the higher elevation landscapes are more resistant and resilient to fires.

“In the lower elevations, they’re just not used to having frequent fires, and the plant communities have a hard time bouncing back,” Madsen said. “Typically, our lower elevation sites are burning every 50 to 300 years, and now, we have cheatgrass in the mix and fires every 3 to 10 years; that’s when those areas really struggle.”

The developments the group has made with cheatgrass is a carbon coating around the seeds and a herbicide spray. The spray kills all of the plants in the area, including the desired species, but the carbon coating neutralizes the herbicide.

Once the seeds have survived the initial limiting factors, they are not in the clear just yet. Madsen added the most important time period for native seeds is their first year in soil.

“The first year is the most limiting factors, it’s where we see the highest amount of mortality,” Madsen said. “Once those plants are established, they’re more likely to persist and that’s assuming we have the right genetic material. We want to make sure we have chosen plants that belong on that site.”

Researchers’ next steps include combining coatings to address multiple limiting factors that would allow native plants a better chance at survival in areas scorched by fires.