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Police shooting shows how Rio Grande Street is out of control

Salt Lake police respond to shots fired in the 200 South block Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake City, Saturday, February 26, 2016.
Salt Lake police respond to shots fired in the 200 South block Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake City, Saturday, February 26, 2016.
Sandra Yi

As Salt Lake City struggles to gain a foothold after the tragic police shooting of a 17-year-old boy officers say was assaulting someone on Rio Grande Street last weekend, one thing seems to be escaping attention.

The street itself is a cesspool of lawlessness, a 24-hour “hell” of crime, as people who know described it to me more than a year ago, and as I have witnessed myself and discussed several times in this column.

Surely, amid the anguish of what happened last Saturday, there must be a sense of inevitability about it all, as well as questions as to why such a place is allowed to exist in a city known as orderly and peaceful. And surely, there must be a resolve to do something about it.

Back in December 2014, I met with several businesses owners in the area who wanted desperately to reform how the Road Home homeless shelter on that street does business. They described public urination, fights, drug deals, prostitution and many other daily occurrences making it hard for them to attract customers or to even come and go from work safely.

Pamela Atkinson, an advocate well known for her work with Utah’s less fortunate, described the problem well when she told a legislative committee that the homeless aren’t the problem. It’s the criminals who prey on the homeless.

The young man police shot, Kenyan refugee Abdullahi Mohamed, was not, as Atkinson reminded the committee, homeless. What he was doing in that neighborhood, and what led him to beat a man with a stick or a rod remains unclear.

But Rio Grande Street has become a mall, of sorts, for the underworld. The group I met with included Bryson Garbett, president of Garbett Homes. He took the unusual step of posing as a homeless person and living on the street for four nights. He described sordid scenes rivaling anything you would expect to find in a bigger city. He also described meeting intelligent, interesting out-of-luck homeless people trying to get help amid the danger, vying for a limited number of beds inside the shelter each night.

One person who gets all this is Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller. As the Deseret News reported, she pleaded with lawmakers Monday to fully fund the city’s and Salt Lake County’s request for $27 million to help redesign the Road Home shelter, which Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski said was designed to hold 300 people but regularly crams more than 1,000 people together each night.

Miller and other members of the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission may have gotten through to lawmakers, who ought to make this a priority.

With $27 million, the commission hopes to find ways to divide the homeless into separate shelters in separate locations, depending on their needs. No longer would families with children or single homeless women have to navigate the gauntlet of Rio Grande.

If the shelters dealt with smaller, more easily controlled populations, and if they had better ways to help people obtain public services and track their progress, it might be easier to keep the peace.

When I’ve written about this before, critics have accused wealthy business owners of little more than wanting to move the homeless away because they are bad for business. It ought to be clear now that the neighborhood is a community crisis.

I refer to what happened to Mohamed as a tragedy because there is no other way to describe the shooting of a 17-year-old boy, no matter the circumstances. Like many troubled young people, he had a long list of felonies and misdemeanors on his rap sheet, including 122 days in a detention facility, according to the Deseret News. That, in itself, is a separate tragedy.

But the shooting, the tragic tale of a young man who now is in critical condition and the facts of what happened Saturday are one thing. The conditions that contributed to the situation on Rio Grande Street are another, and they can, and ought to, be solved through the right political will.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.