State lawmakers did the right thing during a special session Wednesday when they overwhelmingly approved two bills to help authorities deal with lawlessness near the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City.
The two bills themselves — one providing nearly $5 million in immediate aid to law enforcement and the other making it possible for the city to close a portion of Rio Grande Street — were greatly needed to help the multijurisdictional efforts in the area stay on task.
More than that, however, they sent a symbolic message. The state recognizes that homelessness is a problem extending far beyond the boundaries of any single city, and it is prepared to help fund solutions.
For too long, Salt Lake City has borne the full burden of dealing with the homeless, and the lawless factions attracted to them, even though the people involved come from all across Utah and beyond. These bills set a precedent that signals the state is serious about helping its most downtrodden population.
Of the two, the measure to close part of Rio Grande Street and create a safe place for those legitimately seeking help has attracted the most controversy. Entrance to this safe space would require identification issued by the shelter and would be patrolled by drug-sniffing dogs. It also would feature shade, toilet facilities and hand-washing stations.
House Speaker Greg Hughes said he believes this space would reassure homeless people who have been afraid to access the shelter because of its reputation for theft and violence or who believe drug dealers in the area will make it harder for them to overcome their own addictions.
Opponents of the measure worry the safe space would feel too much like a prison, scaring away people who prefer not to live in such a structured environment.
We suspect there is a bit of truth to both those opinions. It is true that a portion of the city’s homeless have migrated to other makeshift camps, along the Jordan River or in other parts of the Wasatch Front, since the crackdown began. Likely there is no one reason fueling all of this.
However, the state and its municipal jurisdictions have no obligation to allow people who shun help to set up camps wherever they choose. It does have an obligation to provide help to those who seek and accept it. The safe space would provide a welcome respite from criminals who have had too much freedom to pollute good intentions and thwart progress.
We urge the Salt Lake City Council to approve this temporary road closure.
This special session is only the first step in helping state and local officials clean and improve the Rio Grande area while providing real and measured help to the homeless. But it is an important one.
We hope lawmakers follow up in January with further methods to ensure increased funding, especially continuing to push for the much-anticipated Medicaid waiver, which would make funds available for various addiction-related services. We also hope the officials directing efforts on the ground remain nimble enough to react to the fluid and ever-changing migratory patterns of the homeless and the criminals who are attracted to them.