SALT LAKE CITY — As Salt Lake's top political leaders continue to dodge discussions on Sheriff Jim Winder's plan to reign in homeless problems along Rio Grande Street, members of a business coalition simmer amid fears of another chaotic summer near the downtown shelter.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski declined to express an opinion about the plan in a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday, saying it first needs to be vetted through Salt Lake County's Collective Impact Steering Committee — the body that has been sorting through homeless issues for the past 2 1/2 years.
"I don't run Collective Impact," Biskupski said. "(Salt Lake County Mayor Ben) McAdams does. "I suggested that happen, and at the last meeting he started the meeting with, 'There will be no discussion on that topic.'"
She laid the issue at McAdam's feet.
"The sheriff's own boss won't vet it out," she said.
McAdams was not available for an interview Monday, but his spokeswoman, Michelle Schmitt, said the county mayor hasn't placed the plan — which calls for full-time police presence in The Road Home Shelter and strict enforcement of camping ordinances, among other actions — on the Collective Impact agenda because "this is not a criminal focus group."
"The Collective Impact is a group that comes together to discuss the plan to improve the homeless service system," she said. "This isn't necessarily the most appropriate committee to bring forth discussion around the sheriff's proposal."
It's the kind of back-and-forth that has members of the Pioneer Park Coalition — a group of downtown businesses that has backed Winder's plan or at least some version of it — pulling their hair out.
"We believe the only person that has a plan to answer the problem today is (Winder), and yet we cannot get Ben or Jackie or (Salt Lake City Police Chief) Mike Brown or Jim to sit down and say 'Let's do this,'" said Scott Howell of the Pioneer Park Coalition.
Meanwhile, the coalition fears the lawlessness, the open-air drug market and the scores of campers that have increasingly troubled The Rio Grande neighborhood for the past several years will remain out of control this year.
They worry that while city and county leaders focus on the long-term plan to close the downtown shelter by June 2019, not enough is being done to tackle the safety and health issues that occur on 500 West in the interim.
"If we don't do something about it, I think this summer's going to be the worst we've ever seen," said coalition member Nichole Thomas, owner of Gateway Bridal, which used to be located across from The Road Home before she relocated.
"It's not going to get better unless everyone starts working together," she said. "That's been my frustration in all of this is the countless meetings we've gone to where city officials are supposed to be representing us, but none of them are on the same page."
Howell said it's disappointing when two of the top Democrats in Utah are "killing each other," not working in harmony.
"The saddest thing about this is while we do this B.S., it's the homeless that are suffering, and we're playing stupid politics," he said. "We've got to have some adult leadership."
Coalition member and businesswoman Tiffany Provost lauded the plan to build services-focused homeless resource centers but urged serious consideration of Winder's plan to start holding the 1,100-bed Road Home — which initially began as a 300-bed shelter — to standards that don't break the fire or health department codes.
To Howell, "the buck should stop with Biskupski" — since it's her police force and her city that has the power to hold The Road Home to better standards.
In an interview, Winder said he, too, thinks the power to act lies with Biskupski, pointing out that her police chief has recently said in response to questions about the sheriff's plan that the Rio Grande neighborhood is Salt Lake City's "sandbox."
When asked about the plan and what more can be done to control the issue this year, Biskupski said it's not an issue that falls into one person's lap, not wanting to undermine the work of the county's Collective Impact Committee.
"The decisions we are making, whether you like it or not, are being made by everyone who is working on this together," she said. "I'm not here to say, 'I'm making decisions solely on my own.' I'm not. All the decisions are being made in a collective manner, and I don't think that's a bad thing."
Biskupski also highlighted the array of actions the city is already taking to alleviate Rio Grande:
- $2 million in city funds for homeless services alone
- A match of $685,000 to county funds for Operation Diversion
- Expansion of the Community Connections Center that has successfully helped people into treatment
- A consolidated police station next to The Road Home
- Ongoing work to increase the city's affordable and supportive housing stock
- A new aggressive anti-panhandling campaign that will soon be ready for launch.
When asked by the editorial board what more resources can be added to prevent loitering or camping in downtown areas, Biskupski reversed the question.
"What do you think should happen?" she said. "You think my $2 million is not more resources? ... What do you think the answer is because we are doing what we can."
In an interview Monday evening, Winder said he is frustrated with the lack of traction his suggestions have garnered over the past several weeks. He said at this point, he doesn't care if his plan morphs into something completely different — he just wants something done.
"Government can't have no answer," he said. "Imagine if we had a flood, and we all stood on both sides of the road and just watched the water go by."
Though Biskupski worked with him before she came mayor, Winder said he hasn't had a one-on-one conversation with her "since she's left my office." Rather, all communication has been through surrogates and in public meetings.
Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said she and McAdams were scheduled to meet Monday night, but it wasn't clear whether they were going to discuss the sheriff's 21-point plan.