Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The newly rebuilt Road Home Midvale Center Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Road Home’s response to the audit said it has a philosophy of operating a "low barrier shelter.” In other words, almost anyone is welcome. This, the response said, is “one of the key elements of an effective emergency shelter.”

I think it was the picture of a red ball of candy laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, that got to me.

This tempting jawbreaker was found in a public area at the 300-bed homeless family shelter in Midvale — a place where children roam while their parents try to negotiate a pathway back to mainstream society.

Really?

The photo is part of a newly released audit by Utah’s legislative auditor general, a report that outlines a host of problems uncovered by random visits to shelters run by the nonprofit Road Home organization.

That includes, especially, the main Salt Lake shelter on Rio Grande Street. That’s where auditors (and the police accompanying them) found used syringes, spice joints, people quickly hiding things as they approached, people showing signs of a drug overdose and broken alarms that are supposed to sound when someone breaches the barriers separating men from women.

As I read, I kept looking back to the first page for the date. Had I read wrong? It says May 2018, but shouldn’t it be 2017, before Operation Rio Grande, in which police poured into the area around Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter and the road was closed to keep the bad people out, had started?

“Based on our own observations and the comments by those we interviewed, we have concluded that drug use at the downtown shelter is both common and problematic,” the audit said.

Haven’t we gotten past that by now?

And please, I’m aware that House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, is cautioning us all not to “engage in pearl clutching,” as he told the Deseret News. That’s a phrase meaning we shouldn’t treat something commonplace as if it were new or salacious.

But at what point, when we see drug-laced candy at a shelter for children, shouldn’t we look for something to clutch?

And weren’t we told a year ago that the commonplace was about to become passé? Wasn’t that the whole point of the tough talk, such as when House Speaker Greg Hughes promised the bad guys would go and stay away because they would understand the crackdown this time was for good, or when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said, “Wherever the bad guys go, we’re going with them.”

Except that they keep coming back to the same place, some with weapons, some with drugs, and some finding their way in despite being banned for acting badly in the past.

The Road Home’s response to the audit said it has a philosophy of operating a "low barrier shelter.” In other words, almost anyone is welcome. This, the response said, is “one of the key elements of an effective emergency shelter.”

But at some point, the lack of a barrier becomes an effective barrier of its own. Auditors spoke with 21 homeless people on the streets of Salt Lake City and found almost a third said they stay away from the shelter because they want to “avoid the drug use, stealing, and poor health conditions. …”

One poor soul struggling to overcome an addiction said he knew he would meet familiar drug pushers there. “He fears he would not be able to refuse their offers of drugs,” the report said.

Some questions come to mind.

Three new shelters are under construction. State and local leaders have told us this signals a new day, when the homeless are treated seriously and helped back into society. But how may we be certain that some future audit of these new facilities doesn’t turn up similar problems?

Are criminals so tightly woven into the culture of homelessness that it is impossible to separate them from those in legitimate need?

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How much of the problem rests with the Road Home, which the audit accuses of being lax in the enforcement of rules? And if that organization’s policies are the problem, could someone else have run the shelter on Rio Grande in an effective way, saving taxpayers the cost of building new shelters?

The questions are important. As the audit notes, things have improved “significantly” in the area around the shelter since Operation Rio Grande started. But the shelter, apparently, still is unsafe.

Utahns need to believe in the efforts underway, not just for the public’s safety, but for the sake of desperate people in need.

No one should believe solutions are a piece of cake. We should, however, demand the children are safe from tainted candy.