SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to facilitate the long-term closure of Rio Grande Street on Tuesday night.
The ordinance was the final step to make a two-year closure of the street — until the downtown homeless shelter closes in 2019 — legally possible.
Last month, the Utah Legislature changed state law in a special session to allow Salt Lake City to close Rio Grande Street near the corner of 200 South and lease it to the state to create a "safe space" for people seeking services at the Road Home's downtown shelter and Catholic Community Services facilities. The city then needed to create an ordinance to use that new option in state law.
The law change came after House Speaker Greg Hughes pressured Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski to close the street immediately to create the safe space he said was needed to separate criminals from those seeking homeless services.
The street closure is a piece of Operation Rio Grande, the state, county and city effort to root out lawlessness in Salt Lake City's most troubled area, surrounding the crowded Road Home shelter.
Prior to voting, City Council Chairman Stan Penfold said he's supportive of the ordinance, but not without publicly acknowledging much more needs to be done for the "long-term needs" of the city's homeless population, including behavioral health and substance abuse treatment.
"Regardless of the intent, as we continue to enforce in this neighborhood, we continue to send the message that the homeless population is not safe here," Penfold said. "I know there is a conflict between our goal of providing safety and perception of safety. I think we can do a lot more ... There is so much work to do."
City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall agreed, but also pointed out the street closure is "one piece" of the much larger effort to address crime in the area while also remodeling the city and county's homeless services delivery system.
"This is not a solution to a problem, it' s a piece of a puzzle really," she said, but she added the city perhaps could have used the street closure as more "leverage" to hold the state to achieve the "level of successes we are being assured here."
"We are relying on hope too much at this point," she said. "This is a serious request that we could say 'no' to ultimately, and that I would like to have more assurance from the state and other partners that these successes will come to fruition."