As Salt Lake City and County move forward with long-term solutions to homelessness, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says the homeless situation in the Rio Grande District has become a public-safety and health emergency that the county will spend $1 million in the next month to solve.
In two meetings this week, McAdams fielded tough questions from residents and business owners in the troubled Rio Grande District between 200 South and 400 South along 500 West and Rio Grande Avenue, where they say homeless related crime and drug dealing has never been worse.
McAdams says the city and the county are working on a short-term plan to deal with the 300-plus people who local businesses complain have turned Pioneer Park into a refugee camp, the sidewalks into bathrooms and street corners and downtown Trax trains into drug dealers’ offices.
The county will put $1 million toward a short-term solution and a joint city-county plan for law enforcement and addiction services will be issued in three weeks. Beyond that McAdams offered no details.
Citizens at the meetings met McAdams’ assurances with skepticism and dark jokes about 500 West being renamed “500 Worst” and Pioneer Park, “Pioneer Campground.”
“It’s an absolute war zone for people who live and work here,” one business owner told McAdams. And that situation deteriorates even further after 1 a.m. when police patrols cease, and, as one neighbor put it, “the crazy stuff starts.”
“We are acutely aware of the challenges in the Rio Grande District,” McAdams said. “We are going to have to have a strategy to make [a solution] happen. We will have more on that in coming weeks—weeks not months.”
When repeatedly pressed on when the the emergency strategy would be in place, McAdam said, “Wait for three weeks.”
What seems obvious, however, is that the $1-million emergency plan, like several initiatives in the Rio Grande District over the years will most likely fail. McAdams, himself, admits the difficulty in controlling the drug trade, even short term, because dealers can only be taken off the street for three or four hours before they are released again because of the county’s over-crowded jail. And more drug “mules” pop up in their places.
Lieutenant Andrew Oblad told the Pioneer Park Coalition meeting, “I’ve got really good cops working really hard to take care of your concerns. But I don’t have a magic solution.”
Meanwhile, mid-term and long-term solutions to homelessness in the county are moving forward and two new group homes, that will disperse homeless to different parts of the city, should be announced by September. When asked about the situation, homeless activist Pamela Atkins, said: ”I think we are seeing real change, but I think we need to see more immediate real change.”