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    Categories: Community & CultureIn the MagazinePolitics

Walking the Wild Side: County Mayor McAdams puts compassion to the test.

written by: Glen Warchol    photo by: Adam Finkle

Last March, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams encountered a homeless couple caring for a 9-year-old autistic child in the Rio Grande neighborhood. “I know an awful lot about the statistics of homelessness,” McAdams says. “It became real when I saw a mother and father trying to care for their child. The child was asking where they were going to sleep that night. The father had been kicked out of the family shelter for getting into a fight, so there was some culpability there. But I have a 9 year old and I thought of my child not knowing where his next meal was going to come from—his next bed.”

The intensely personal encounter happened because the mayor, who has the boyishly innocent looks of a young Ron Howard, was facing a tough decision on homelessness services. To do some fact finding, McAdams left his money and ID at his office, donned a hoodie and jeans and took a walk on Salt Lake’s wildest side.

The county’s optimistic plans for helping Salt Lake’s exploding homeless population had turned into a fiasco just weeks before. The county, working with service providers and citizens’ groups, had developed a “new model” for dealing with the disintegrating situation in the Rio Grande and Pioneer Park neighborhood. Instead of simply offering “a bed and a meal,” the county was gearing up to attack the root causes of homelessness, including its newest face: rampant opioid addiction. McAdams rolled the strategy out in meetings with business owners and residents in the Rio Grande district who were fed up with decades of drug dealing, crime and filth in their neighborhood. Everyone, it seemed, was on board.

The new model will establish resource centers that will take in homeless for up to three months to stabilize them, evaluate their needs, then move them into long-term programs for addiction, mental health and jobs. Key to it is helping the homeless find homes. Supporters of the new model cautioned it wouldn’t be quick or easy and it wouldn’t work for all street people, but hope was in sight. “We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem,” was the program’s mantra. “There are not enough jail beds and not enough money to lock everyone up,” McAdams says. Not to mention that poverty and hopelessness aren’t crimes.

At that point, the ball was passed to Salt Lake City to choose sites for the resource centers in residential neighborhoods—close to needed services and jobs, but isolated from the drug dealers of Pioneer Park.

Within weeks, under Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s leadership, the center placement process turned into a debacle. She and the city council chose secrecy over public meetings and announced in December the sites for the four centers.

Residents of the targeted neighborhoods, notably Sugar House, were enraged. They envisioned the open-air drug market of Rio Grande being recreated in their beloved back yard. Citizens were universally disgusted that it had bypassed public input.  Biskupski was shouted down at a series of meetings after the sites were announced. Residents organized to not only block the Sugar House center, but to throw Biskupski out of office as soon as possible. As the anger heated up, Biskupski’s city council allies and her resolve melted away.

By February, the Sugar House site was an ugly memory and the number of resource centers to go in Salt Lake City had been reduced to two—the county would have to put a third elsewhere. The Utah Legislature charged McAdams with finding a third site by the end of March. He scheduled public meetings. “I knew it wasn’t going to be fun, and it wasn’t going to be pretty,” he says. It wasn’t. A Draper meeting earned infamy when residents shouted down a homeless man who tried to thank office holders for their compassion.

On Friday afternoon the weekend before the deadline, McAdams was groping for perspective in a situation that had drained the community’s compassion. “On a whim, I decided I was going to go out to the Rio Grande district and observe and experience homelessness,” he recalls. “I left my office at 5 p.m. And was out there till 5 p.m. on Sunday.” He spent a night on the street and a night in the Road Home shelter.

McAdams’ point of view on homelessness didn’t change, but he now understands the issue viscerally. “You hear people saying about the homeless, ‘They’re lazy. Why don’t they just get a job.’ I came away realizing how much time and energy and calories were spent on just finding my next meal or finding where I was going to sleep. There wasn’t a lot of time for job interviews or job training. I remember looking forward to riding Trax a few stops because I would be warm. There isn’t a lot of compassion for how hard it is to survive when you have absolutely nothing—let alone the psychological toll it takes.”

McAdams has no illusions about the depth and breadth of his weekend foray into homelessness, which he kept secret for five months. “I know that three days and two nights is only a snapshot and my depth of understanding is minimal,” he says. “I knew I was a phone call away from a family and a home and healthcare and a bed.”

“But I came away with a conviction that we have to move ahead. That we are on the right path, but we need to realign the system to make it easier for people to get treatment and lift themselves out of poverty.”

Where to from here?

The state, county and city have banded together to fight homelessness over the long haul.

Operation Rio Grande, an emergency short-term response to the lawlessness in the Pioneer Park area includes three phases:

Phase 1: Restoring order and public safety. The intensity of Phase 1 is tapering off this fall, but patrols will continue through 2019 to suppress criminal activity. The sweeps require an increase in jail beds.

Phase 2: Assessment and treatment. Aggressive prosecution will be supplemented with addiction and mental health treatment options. Success will depend on funding to significantly increase the treatment beds.

Phase 3: The “dignity of work” initiative. The final stage is a public-private partnership to train and hire the formerly homeless.

In 2019, the three resource centers—two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake—are scheduled to open, along with the necessary increase in affordable housing that will enable the “new model” of long-term homelessness services to launch.

For more, listen to Mayor Ben McAdams on on Episode 17 at Salt Lake Speaks.

See more inside our 2017 November/December Issue.

Glen Warchol :