Salt Lake's 'Rio Grande solutions' aim to tackle issues of public safety, drug use and more

Published: Monday, Sept. 30 2013 9:55 p.m. MDT

Downtown Alliance communication director Nick Como talks during a press conference outlining the approach Salt Lake City is taking to address unwanted activity in the area between the Rio Grande Depot and the Road Home Shelter on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Inside Art Access, people with disabilities channel their creativity into art.

But outside, in its parking lot along 500 West, executive director Sheryl Gillilan said she frequently sees people expressing themselves in illegal ways — selling drugs and getting into fistfights.

“People shoot up on our front porch because they think we don’t see them there,” Gillilan said.

In recent months, the Rio Grande neighborhood street scene has deteriorated to the point that Gillilan made a point of attending a press conference Monday where city officials and service providers rolled out what Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker described as “our Rio Grande solutions.”

The collaborative approach includes regular visits from cleaning crews to pick up refuse, the placement of portable toilets, enhanced law enforcement and prosecution efforts, and an expansion of services provided by area nonprofit agencies that feed, shelter and care for homeless men, women and children.

The city has hired a liaison to work specifically on issues affecting the Rio Grande neighborhood. The Downtown Alliance is training volunteer ambassadors that will eventually work in the area.

“The most effective approach is one that is collaborative in nature and focused on the root causes — connecting people in need with services and a path to rehabilitation, permanent housing, employment and health care while simultaneously addressing the criminal and physical challenges that have emerged, is the base from which the city and our partners are working,” Becker said.

Gillilan said she is “skeptical” whether the approach will make a difference but “I want this to work. I really want this to work.”

Otherwise, she may relocate Art Access/VSA-Utah, which provides art programs for people with disabilities and those with limited access to the arts.

“Whether or not this works depends on whether we’ll move our business,” she said.

Direct service providers are making changes to help address the issues, too, such as increasing the hours that shelter resident can access The Road Home, to hiring more staff to supervise St. Vincent de Paul dining hall during meals. The facility, operated by Catholic Community Services, serves 700 lunches and 700 dinners a day.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said the community needs to differentiate between homeless people who are seeking needed services and the criminal element that preys on them.

“Our focus has been and will continue to be those individuals who are committing crimes,” Burbank said.

“It’s the homeless population that time and time again is victimized by those individuals coming down to the area with the intent to sell narcotics, engage in other criminal activity including robbery, burglary, car prowls, those type of things that prey upon all of us in society.”

One homeless man, who identified himself as Josh, said drug trafficking appeared to be on the decline since police have increased patrols in the area. He has been staying at The Road Home shelter for two months, he said.

Until recently, people sold and used drugs in plain view, he said.

“When I first came down here, it was definitely a shock because people would stand in that dirt field and act like drugs are completely legal without a care in the world. It blew my mind,” he said.

Statistics released by the Salt Lake City Police Department for Sept. 25-27 indicate the majority of arrests for drug offenses in the area involved crack cocaine and heroin. Two other arrests involved possession of methamphetamine.

The statistics suggest a declining number of arrests for the three days on intensive patrols.

Josh said he believes the increased police presence has made a difference but that the drug problem is far more complicated than simply making arrests.

The area is known as a place to purchase drugs, which further complicates matters, he said.

“The whole drug thing is hard. You got to get them out of here. People who use drugs, they know where to get it. This is where they come. It’s kind of a hard game to win,” he said.

Gillilan said her primary concern is the safety of Art Access clients. She said she hopes that the steps outlined by the mayor and others are successful.

“We’ve never had anyone hurt. We’d like to keep it that way,” she said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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