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Improvements in, around Pioneer Park a work in progress, Salt Lake mayor says

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014 7:15 p.m. MDT

Rachel Wilkerson arranges fruit for sale at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. Community leaders updated the public on what the city and service providers are doing to address the challenges facing Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande neighborhood.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department's newly constituted Metro Support Bureau near Pioneer Park made 423 arrests between July 6 and Aug. 7.

More than half of the arrests were drug- and alcohol-related.

While that represents progress, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said conditions in the Pioneer Park neighborhood are complex, and arrests alone will not improve conditions in the area.

"If we are beating everything in the area with a police stick, which is simply jail, then we're doing a disservice to this community and all members of this community," Burbank said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon outside the bureau, 420 W. 200 South.

"We are better served when we consider alternatives to incarceration, when we look at individuals and say, 'What is your problem and how can we solve it so that we don't have to deal with it tomorrow?'"

For some people, that might be a substance use disorder or a mental illness. Others may have physical illnesses and no access to care. And others may need housing, he said.

"Is it simply just a meal for the day? Do they have warrants that are outstanding? How can we resolve those so once again it's not a drain on the criminal justice system?" Burbank said.

While the Metro Support Bureau is committed to fighting crime and arresting those who prey on people who live and work in the area, Burbank said his long-term vision is a bureau that addresses the needs of the entire neighborhood without bias, prejudice, and that "meets all of their needs so we have an environment that people can enjoy coming to and from this area."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said efforts to improve Pioneer Park and the Depot District have been underway for six years.

"We made great progress, and all of a sudden, 18 months ago, the conditions took a turn for the worse in terms of criminal activity, in terms of people feeling unwelcome in this neighborhood. We all have very different roles to play in working on this issue, and fortunately for us in Salt Lake City, we've been very successful by working together, playing to each of our strengths in helping to reduce homelessness," Becker said.

From first lady Michelle Obama to newly appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, the nation has taken notice of the city's progress in housing veterans and others who have been chronically homeless, he said.

"We, with Phoenix, were the first city in the country to effectively end homelessness among our veterans, and we've been on a 10-year goal, which would come to completion in 2015-2016, to end homelessness for our chronically homeless. We, of course, still have a long way to go," Becker said.

Another new initiative has been the launch of a Street Engagement Team, funded through a $200,000 grant from the inaugural Salt Lake County Council of Government's Homeless Services Fund. The grant was funded by contributions from cities in Salt Lake County and the county itself.

"Right now, we've been able to hire those four staff, get them trained and out on the street looking for folks in this area. We've begun outreach efforts with this vulnerable audience," said Rob Wesemann, homeless services division director for Volunteers of America — Utah.

The team combines the resources of Volunteers of America, The Road Home and Fourth Street Clinic to step up outreach efforts in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

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