The environment near Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter and the surrounding Rio Grande District has come to a state described by those in the area as a crisis, beset by around-the-clock criminal activity that has included several recent violent assaults. There is a sense of persistent disorder that suggests the problem is not on the way to being solved in any measurable fashion. That is not for the lack of good intentions among civic leaders, but it is reasonable to wonder what plans they have to address the escalating problem in the short-term.
Just this week, four people were stabbed in an assault near the Road Home shelter in a case police described as severe and unusual. Violence and criminal behavior of all sorts, however, is not unusual in the area. In June, police documented nearly 2,500 criminal offenses in the area, slightly fewer than during the same month last year. That’s such a large number that it really doesn’t matter if the trends are slightly up or down. It’s a big problem that speaks to a level of disarray in an area marked in recent years by significant efforts toward urban renewal.
The problem is not new, but it is disturbing to see evidence that it is getting worse. There are a lot of confluent causes. The lack of affordable housing has contributed to the number of people at least temporarily homeless, but it would be wrong to attribute the problems mainly to the presence of facilities there to help people without means to acquire shelter. The area has been a magnet for drug dealers who mix among patrons of the facilities. Police say a large percentage of the crime problems are linked to people other than those seeking services.
While it’s easy to point to the problem and complain about worsening conditions, it’s much harder to come up with solutions. Even so, that’s what we expect our public officials to do. There are several efforts under way to address the problem in the long-term, including building new shelters and increasing counseling and placement services. When online, those programs and facilities may or may not have an appreciable impact on conditions in the Rio Grande district, which have spread a sense of peril and seediness to a large quadrant of downtown. Mayor Jackie Biskupski has made the issue a priority and marshaled police and other resources to address it, but there is little to suggest the situation is getting better.
The conditions in the area have created a public safety problem, and even possibly a public health problem. No easy solutions are obvious, but we should expect civic leaders to be reacting to the situation with considerable urgency, as they should in any crisis. There is only so much we can expect from law enforcement, but perhaps there are things the city can do to better control the flow of undesirables that haunt the area night and day. It may be the kind of wicked problem that can only be abated by efforts mounted over a long period of time. But in the immediate present, the problems are serious enough to warrant a more vigorous public dialogue among our civic leaders, in which any proposals to curb the festering menace are openly presented and discussed.