We're just getting this off the ground, and we're not stopping. We're saying we can do more. For me, it's exciting. It's nice to be able to help people. —Elizabeth Buehler, homeless services coordinator
SALT LAKE CITY — Ema Ostarcevic has more than a passing interest in the Depot District being a safe place to visit and do business.
It’s been her home for the past 2 ½ years. Ostarcevic has a passion for urban living, having also lived in Europe, downtown Los Angeles and Manhattan.
But in recent months, conditions in the Pioneer Park area — people openly dealing drugs, engaging in sex acts, and defecating and urinating outdoors — have taken their toll.
“I don’t feel safe walking my dog after 6 o’clock at night. I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I’m not hopeful it’s going to change anytime soon,” she said.
In early October, Salt Lake City officials announced a series of steps to clean up the area and crack down on crime.
A month and a half later, area residents, service providers and business give the city's multifaceted strategy mixed reviews.
It is difficult to parse the successful approaches from the downturn of activity that occurs once winter weather sets in, some say.
One clear improvement, based on interviews with people who live and work in the area, has been the cleanup efforts of “clean teams” supervised by Valley Services. Team members walk every street of the Depot District once or twice a day to pick up trash and perform small property maintenance chores such as power-washing buildings and sidewalks or pulling weeds.
“I think there’s been an improvement,” said Dennis Kelsch, basic needs services director for Catholic Community Services of Utah, which operates St. Vincent de Paul dining hall and a day center that assists homeless people. “The area is certainly cleaner.”
Kelsch said the city’s Homeless Outreach Service Team has been particularly effective. The teams include Salt Lake City police officers and homeless services providers who visit Pioneer Park and other outdoor locations meeting people who do not usually use homeless services. The teams help identify clients and direct them to services they need.
“Usually there are 12 to 15 people getting help from that each week. I’d say overall things are improving. We still got a long way to go. For the time they’ve been doing this, there’s been improvements,” Kelsch said.
The increased police presence has helped curb criminal activity to some degree, he said.
“It’s still certainly true that there’s a big drug problem. We find syringes in our parking lot all the time. The thing that’s particularly disturbing is they’re using our parking lot to do these drug deals,” said Sheryl Gillilan, executive director of Art Access.
Otherwise, the clean teams and the city’s efforts to install portable bathrooms and change the landscaping on the median of 500 West between 200 South and 400 South have been effective in cleaning up the area, she said.
Often when arriving to work in the morning, Gillilan said she sees people standing in the cold waiting to re-enter the shelter. She has great empathy for homeless people and abiding respect for people and agencies attempting to help, she said.
“That has never been the problem. It’s more the drugs, the human waste,” Gillilan said.
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, which operates a shelter along Rio Grande Street, also applauds the efforts of the HOST team.
“I so appreciate what (Sgt.) Michelle Ross and the service providers are doing. Michelle has the chutzpah and passion for this work. She’s the glue that holds the collaboration together,” he said.
In general, Salt Lake City police officers have handled their stepped-up patrols with “common sense and compassion,” Minkevitch said.
Recently, an officer encouraged people hanging out in the area to help pick up trash.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch. There was this officer joking and cajoling people there saying, ‘Let’s get this picked up.’ In a matter of minutes, there was a collective of people helping. It almost had the feeling of a neighborhood,” Minkevitch said.
Small steps are making a difference, but the long-term solution to homelessness is permanent supportive housing, he said.
While government and nonprofit partners have made great strides in the past decade in housing people considered chronically homeless, the pace has slowed the past couple of years, Minkevitch said.
“The most effective strategy is housing; there’s no two ways about that. We can get there. We will get there, without a doubt,” he said.
Elizabeth Buehler, the city’s newly named homeless services coordinator, said there are efforts on multiple fronts to serve the homeless yet ensure the Depot District is safe and inviting to residents, visitors and business traffic.
A three-month research project is underway to evaluate strategies being used by the city. Salt Lake officials have also reached out to other cities to explore how they provide services to homeless populations in urban settings.
Buehler, who has been on the job less than two months, said she has been impressed with government and nonprofit service providers' willingness to work together on the issue.
There have been some successes on the short term, such as the work of Valley Services cleaning up the area and changing the landscaping on the traffic median along 500 West. Obviously, the big gear solutions hinge on agencies' abilities to house people in settings where they receive supportive services, Buehler said.
While visiting Los Angeles recently, a group of Salt Lake City officials toured a facility that assists people who have recently been released from hospitals. They recuperate in supportive housing and eventually graduate into on-site apartments.
Salt Lake's efforts with respect to the Depot District are just getting started, and already there have been some successes, Buehler said.
“We’re just getting this off the ground, and we’re not stopping. We’re saying we can do more. For me, it’s exciting. It’s nice to be able to help people,” she said.