In Our Opinion: No More Talk. Salt Lake City Needs Action to Help Rio Grande Homeless

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Gov. Gary Herbert is convening a meeting today about the state of Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district, which has become a magnet for drugs and lawlessness. We echo House Speaker Greg Hughes, who hopes the meeting will result in actionable steps for helping the homeless and improving the area.

On Tuesday, a smattering of tents and makeshift bivouacs were once again assembled at Pioneer Park and its surrounding blocks. At the end of May, the Salt Lake County Health Department conducted a cleanup in the area where heavy machinery was used in an episode that shocked many. Long-term camping, however, is illegal and creates a public health hazard — during cleanups workers encountered used needles and human waste.

What can be done to help the homeless, clean up the area and enforce the law?

One idea that should be considered is putting a single person in charge of crafting a plan with stakeholder input and then coordinating efforts on behalf of the state, county and city in the area around 500 West, where the pervasive criminal element is now concentrated.

This person would be held accountable. Currently, the delivery of homeless services allows the buck to be passed from the city to the county and from the county to the state and back again. With little direct accountability, the results are what one might expect them to be.

Rather than considering the ideas put forward by departing Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, for example, Mayor Jackie Biskupski has spent months marshalling a dazzling array of excuses.

The city and the homeless deserve better.

Currently, drug dealers and criminals looking to prey on this vulnerable population are not being weeded out and removed from among their midst. Allowing criminals to take advantage of the homeless does not show sympathy. A truly empathetic society does not condone lawlessness, but upholds and enforces the rule of law while simultaneously assisting citizens to live up to shared community standards.

“Everything is money,” Mayor Biskupski recently told the Salt Lake County Council regarding this issue. “There’s just not enough. … I have certainly prioritized funding in this neighborhood unlike any other mayor has, but at the end of the day, you can’t arrest your way out. You’ve got to have the housing to transition people, we’ve got to have living wages so people don’t become homeless to begin with, we’ve got to look at Medicaid expansion.”

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Funding is most certainly an issue — and likely always will be — but Salt Lake City residents and local businesses are tired of letting the state’s capital turn into an open campground and drug market while some of those in charge react with a shrug of the shoulders and ask for more funds.

Speaker Hughes, meanwhile, is actually out hunting for solutions. In recent days, Hughes opened up a “war room” office in the Rio Grande area, which he’s used to meet with various stakeholders in preparation for today’s meeting, seeking out the best ideas to change this area’s descent into lawlessness.

While Mayor Biskupski is correct that you cannot “arrest your way out” of the situations, the fact remains that the Rio Grande district needs much more daily involvement than what the mayor has hitherto offered or proposed — i.e., additional trashcans, security cameras and parking.

“I want to have a plan put together,” Hughes said. “I want to have buy-in from all of the stakeholders when we meet with the governor. I want to leave that meeting knowing what to do next. … We have the army, we have the people, we’re engaged and we are going to move forward.”

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